Before we think about how to fix the Habs' power play, we need to understand what needs to be fixed.
There are two ways to go about it: by looking at stats, or watching game tape. Today, we're going to do both.
Aside from their power play woes, the Habs have been doing well so far this season, significantly out-playing their opposition at even strength en route to wins against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, and Ottawa Senators. Here's a quick recap of how the team stands right now at five-versus-five (via WAR On Ice):
So at five-on-five, Montreal is that big circle at the top-left of the graph. Strong puck possession, despite starting in their zone more often than most other teams (a function of getting hemmed in and/or regularly icing the puck) and an above-average PDO (the shooters have been hot and both Mike Condon and Carey Price have gotten the job done). It's all good in the 'hood, for now.
But what about on the power play?
This is the exact same graph, but for adds five-versus-four and four-versus-three situations to the five-versus-five data above:
Montreal has had a lot of time on the man-advantage in three games and has not really done much with their opportunities, scoring just once on 14 tries. So far, they are among the worst in the league at creating shot attempts and offensive zone faceoffs on the power play.
The best power play teams (the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Vancouver Canucks) create a large volume of shots on-net, then force the opposing goaltender to either kick out a rebound, or freeze the puck for another offensive-zone draw. Relatively speaking, the Habs don't do much of either. Their "pace of play," as measured by the number of shot attempts per hour of man advantage time (Corsi-for per 60 minutes), currently ranks 24th in the league, 40% lower than that of Washington. There's a lot of catching up to do there.
The Game Tape
Not only are the Habs not scoring on the power play, but they've also given up a short-handed goal, against Ottawa on Sunday:
At first glance, it looks like P.K. Subban overplayed his hand on the zone entry, got stripped, and didn't get back fast enough to stop the two-on-one. But that's not what really happened.
Jeff Petry carries the puck out of the defensive zone and his teammates Alex Galchenyuk, Lars Eller and Alex Semin overload the left side of the ice. This forces the Senators' penalty killers to shift and opens up a lane on the right side for Subban. Petry makes a good pass and Subban should be able to skate the puck in. So far, so good.
Subban looks up and sees Jared Cowen and Mark Borowiecki looking back at him, a very good pair to try to make an aggressive offensive play against. Cowen has good stick position to take away the passing lane to Semin, so Subban decides to carry along the boards.
This is when things start to go bad for the Habs. Cowen rubs Subban out along the boards and the puck squirts loose for Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT44). Meanwhile, Galchenyuk, Eller, and Semin are not coming over to the right side of the ice to support the play; notice where their toes are pointed. Outside the faceoff dots (as marked by the yellow line), the Sens actually out-man the Habs two-on-one, which is not ideal especially considering which team is on the power play.
Pageau gains control of the puck and Petry is forced to back up because he's got no help. Subban is out of the play because he was the puck carrier and expected one of his teammates to cover for him. Eller and Galchenyuk are a step behind Curtis Lazar (OTT27). Alex Semin is taking a European cruise vacation.
All of a sudden, a two-on-one along the boards has turned into a two-on-one in the middle of the ice, going full-speed the other way.
You won't see it on this frame, but Galchenyuk isn't skating all that hard on the back-check. Even though Petry has good position on Pageau and can make a play on him, he doesn't, because he needs to respect the cross-ice pass to Lazar. If MTL27 can just get alongside Lazar, then Petry can go stick-to-stick against Pageau, negating the entire play.
Looking at Galchenyuk's skates, you'll realize he's not in a position to make any sort of defensive play on Lazar. Meanwhile, Petry is now committed to not being committed to either Ottawa-forward, which gives Pageau the option of taking a high-quality shot. The result: short-handed goal, Ottawa.
A Ray Of Hope
It would stink to leave things on such a down note, but as recently as this spring, the Habs have been doing all the right things on the power play. With Galchenyuk taking a step forward overall, and Semin in for P.A. Parenteau, there are no reasons why this current group can't unite their strengths to become a top-10 PP unit in the NHL. If the Habs forwards are given more opportunities to make plays, it would lessen the burden placed upon Subban, Petry and Andrei Markov, and help the team get to where it wants to be, sooner rather than later.
Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.