Whether Michel Therrien and his staff use analytics to guide their roster and tactical decisions is very much up to debate, but there is absolutely no doubt that video scouting is a key part of pre-game preparations for any elite hockey organization from the NHL, to the CIS, down to the most rigorous minor hockey programs.
Throughout the Montreal-Ottawa series, we'll be breaking down plays in an attempt to identify trends, opportunities, and ways for the Habs to gain an edge on the ice.
Focus: Erik Karlsson's offensive contribution
It'd be no exaggeration to say that Erik Karlsson is the straw which stirs the drink for the Sens. During the teams' 2014-15 season series, Erik Karlsson and frequent partner Marc Methot were the most dominant possession drivers for Ottawa. Most Habs skaters struggled to keep pace with the Senators in terms of possession whenever 65 was on the ice, even the top Montreal pairing of P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov. While Karlsson is not the best defensive player by any means, his transition game out of his own zone, with or without the puck, is to be underestimated at one's own peril.
At his best, Karlsson can create zone exits and entries almost at will with his superior skating and puck control. However, he is also dangerous on the transition without the puck, as he never hesitates to jump into the play if his teammates are heading toward the offensive zone with speed and control.
Note this sequence, which occurred on March 12, 2015:
Fairly routine play here, with Montreal's line of de la Rose, Eller and Smith-Pelly digging for the puck along the boards in the Ottawa end. Karlsson, standing next to the referee, is watching the play develop.
David Legwand (OTT17) ends up winning the puck battle and is off to the races with winger Alex Chiasson (OTT90) in support. Meanwhile, Karlsson has gone from 0-30MPH in about 1.5 seconds, and becomes the trailer on the play. Rookie Jacob de la Rose should be shadowing Karlsson, but is a bit slow to recognize the situation. It's about to become a big problem.
Legwand targets defenseman Sergei Gonchar on the entry, which is a smart move because the 40 year-old is too slow to gap up and prevent a controlled entry. Still, Gonchar-Beaulieu are doing okay in the 2-on-2 against Legwand-Chiasson - if these two were the only Senators in on the rush. But they're not. Legwand sees the cross-ice lane and slides the puck over to Karlsson. Meanwhile, de la Rose is two steps out and has no chance of intercepting the pass.
Suddenly, it's a prime scoring chance in the slot with three Ottawa forwards crashing the net (Legwand, Chiasson and #26 Matt Puempel). Price is under pressure now, because he knows he cannot afford to give up a soft rebound.
No rebounds here, because Karlsson shoots it right through Carey Price. He takes advantage of one poor read by a Montreal backchecker 150 feet down the ice, and turns a harmless 2-on-2 turning into a key goal for the Senators.
There are a few ways to mitigate Karlsson's impact on the game. The traditional method would be to dump the puck in on his side and try to physically dominate him throughout the seven-game series. The Canadiens do have some players with the speed (Gallagher, Mitchell) or strength (Prust, Smith-Pelly) to make it a viable option. But then again, this is what every NHL team has tried to do at one point or the other against Ottawa, with varying levels of success.
Another way to shut down Karlsson is to give his teammates a little less time and space to operate with the puck. On the previous sequence, the entire offensive play could have been nullified had Gonchar been able to force Legwand to dump the puck into the zone, thereby forcing Karlsson to retreat back to the neutral zone. On a dump-in, it would be reckless for him to keep chasing the play into the Habs zone as a forechecker. That would open up the possibility of a quick breakout pass trapping Ottawa's best player on the wrong end of the ice. Beside, even Karlsson doesn't have the wheels to play forward and defense for 30 minutes each game.
In essence, allowing Ottawa to maintain control of the puck and dictate the tempo means permitting Karlsson to become an option on the rush. With a little more awareness and foresight, the Habs can take away one of the Swede's two favourite plays.