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Failed Zone Exits: The Habs' Kryptonite in Game 4

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A video-based look at what went wrong for the Canadiens on Wednesday night.

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Hockey is a game of controlled chaos, with 10 armored men wearing metal blades on their feet chasing a small rubber disk across a frozen, slippery surface.

One of the main challenges associated with collecting data for hockey analytics is that someone (whether an NHL employee operating the league's Real-Time Stats System, a team employee or a third-party tracker) would have to watch the game very, very carefully in an attempt to organize hundreds of unique events into a few dozen distinct categories.

Every pass, shot attempt or turnover is a different snowflake, but to be able to gain any analytical insights into what is happening on the ice means pigeonholing these events into simple "outcomes." In essence, it's no different than turning something like a piano concerto into a MIDI or MP3 file. You're turning something physical and nuanced (sound waves or a hockey play) into something digital (zeroes and ones, either as a sound file or as entries in a spreadsheet).

One of the breakthroughs our staff has made at the McGill Martlet hockey program is how to treat Zone Exits and Entries when collecting real-time statistics. As I alluded to, there is a myriad different outcomes possible when breaking out of the D-zone or into the O-zone. However, we can capture most of that information by identifying each play as "Controlled" - the puck carrier crosses the blue line by carrying the puck or passing the puck, "Uncontrolled" - the puck carrier dumps or chips the puck past the blue line, or "Failed" - the puck carrier is stopped physically by opposing players and/or turns the puck over.

Generally speaking, any Controlled Entry or Exit is the most desirable outcome, while Failed plays are to be avoided whenever possible.

Focus: Montreal Failed Zone Exits in Game 4

A Failed Zone eXit (FZX from hereon in) is really the worst thing that can happen to any team at even strength.

When you cannot get out of your end cleanly, it becomes excessively difficult to attack the offensive zone with speed and control. The number of shot attempts against go up, while shots attempts for dry up. All of a sudden, your Corsi% is down in the 30s.

It's the kind of problem which feeds on itself, leading to things such as:

a) even more FZXs

b) icings against

c) shot attempts against

d) penalties against

e) goals against

Basically nothing good ever happens off of a FZX; it is the plague.

Now, let's take a look at two short clips from the Hab's third period on Wednesday:

How many FZXs did you count?

I had five, with an Uncontrolled Zone Exit from Gilbert which very easily could have been an icing call at the tail end of the play.

Let's repeat the exercise with another clip taken minutes later in the third:

Two FZXs here, plus an icing for good measure.

The Montreal players aren't solely to blame on either clips. After chasing the play and over-emphasizing physical contact in the first three games, Ottawa's forecheckers began to use their speed and anticipation to recover the puck, instead of merely collecting late hits against Montreal defenders.

In addition, Nathan Beaulieu's injury means that the Habs are now woefully thin on puck-moving talent down the left side of the ice. After Andrei Markov, they will now have to settle with a mix of Alexei Emelin, who figured prominently on both clips above, Sergei Gonchar, who's yet to play in this series, and Tom Gilbert on his backhand side.

This is something that the Senators can exploit, and exploit they did.

Let's take a look at Mike Hoffman's game-winning goal:

Carey Price stops an Ottawa dump-in behind the net and is about to play it to Tom Gilbert.

Ottawa brings their two-man forecheck of Mika Zibanejad (F1) and Mike Hoffman (F2). Bobby Ryan is not in the frame - he's the high F3 in this play. He'll responsible for supporting his defensemen in case they need to pinch, and is open for a pass in the slot in case Ottawa forces a turnover.

Gilbert gets the puck but he has no speed, no support, and no options. Look at the feet of Eller and Emelin - both have their toes pointing away from Gilbert, expecting a quick pass instead of being ready to come in and help.

Zibanejad has done a great job of coming in at the right forecheck angle, and Hoffman is actually peeling off - he's not here to make the hit, but to help his F1 trap the opposing D and take advantage of what comes next.

Gilbert is in tough and has three relatively unattractive choices - trap the puck against the boards and wait for support, shoot the puck around the boards and hope that his RW gets to it first, or backhand the puck toward his LW.

Gilbert chooses backhand, and is about to get run over by the 6'2", 211lb Zibanejad. Not much good can happen on this play, and he's going to get punished physically on top of that.

The Habs got a really friendly bounce from the glass/metal stanchion on Dale Weise's overtime winner in Game 3, but the glass is not your friend. It can bite you hard in the ass when you least expect it.

The puck bounces over the stick of Jacob de la Rose and is stopped by Cody Ceci right at the blue line. Brian Flynn's feet are taking him outside of the D-zone prematurely, while Bobby Ryan is well-positioned to support Ceci defensively in case he can't control the puck.

Ceci gets a handle on the puck and makes a short shovel pass to Mike Hoffman.

All three of Montreal's forwards are scrambling to get back into the play off the FZX, so it's now a two-on-one in the Montreal zone, with Emelin rushing back into the play.

Hoffman has room to operate, and Gilbert and Zibanejad are battling in front of Price.

Hoffman's reputation as a sniper is only recently being solidified at the NHL level, but really there aren't many players who are more dangerous from the low slot. He shows perfect form on the pull wrist shot, with hands away from the body and a full foot of torque on his stick shaft.

Price is usually hard to beat from that spot on the ice, but the Montreal netminder can't see the puck through Gilbert and Zibanejad. And Hoffman gets his shot away quickly enough that Lars Eller can't get stick on puck, and Alexei Emelin can't slide in for a block.

1-0 Ottawa, and so the Sens stay alive to fight another day.

FULL VIDEO:

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.