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How the Habs can beat the Senators on the powerplay

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Making the most of zone entries on the man advantage may help the Canadiens get over the hump.

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

If you have ever seen 2008's The Dark Knight, you may agree that The Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger, is the most interesting and memorable character of the movie.

In one instance, the psychopathic killer even drops a line which happens to be applicable to the game of hockey:

"Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos, I’m an agent of chaos , and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair."

At the NHL level, hockey is a constant battle between order and chaos.

Coaches attempt to implement a sound, stable defensive structure in order to prevent scoring chances, while opposing players use their speed, vision and creativity to disrupt that structure, generate gaps in the coverage, and turn those gaps into goals.

So The Joker isn't quite right when he says that chaos is fair.

In hockey, at least, chaos tips the balance in favor of the offense. Introduce chaos into the system when you have the puck, and you'll likely gain an edge.

Let's start by taking a look at a powerplay goal scored by the St. Louis Blues on Friday night:

Watch the clip a few times and you will notice two startling things:

1) All five Blues players on the ice touched the puck. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk took care of the zone exit before handing off to Paul Stastny for the controlled zone entry. Stastny then made a cross-ice pass to Jaden Schwartz, who bumped the puck up to Alex Steen. Steen then made a quick cross-crease pass to an unguarded Vladimir Tarasenko for the tap-in goal.

2) The Blues started the play behind their own net with 20 seconds left in the powerplay. Five touches and 12 seconds later, the puck was in the Minnesota net. The Wild never knew what hit them.

Now, the previous play is really as perfect as it gets. It wouldn't be realistic to expect a team at any level to routinely execute as well as St. Louis just did.

Still, it could be beneficial to adopt the Blues' mindset on the man advantage, and treat the zone entry as a chance to create a high-quality scoring chance, rather than merely a way to get all five guys into the offensive zone.

NHL goalies are really, really good. And NHL penalty-killers are pretty good at taking away shooting and passing lanes once they get into defensive coverage. So there are three main ways to score on the powerplay:

a) Create gaps in coverage with good puck/player movement and exploit that gap with cross-ice passes and one-timers. (ex: Nick Backstrom to Alex Ovechkin, to the back of the net on the Washington Capitals PP)

b) Feed the puck to the point, shoot through the coverage, and look for screens, deflections and rebounds. (ex: Shea Weber on the Nashville PP)

and

c) Use the additional space on the ice to make controlled entries, create odd-men (3 vs. 2, 2 vs. 1, 1 vs. 0)  situations down low, and score before the coverage even has time to get set up (ex: Tarasenko's goal for the Blues).

Looking at the Canadiens' powerplay zone entries against the Senators on Friday night, we can see that they are not allowing themselves the benefit of having all three scoring options.

Focus: Generating shots off controlled zone entries on the powerplay

Coaches often talk about "making adjustments" over the course of a series, and it could be said that Dave Cameron and the Ottawa Senators have cleaned up some of their defensive zone issues five games into the series.

The Canadiens did outshoot the Sens on Friday night, but generally speaking, they were kept out of the high-danger slot area. It was especially so on the powerplay, where the Habs were 0-4. Montreal had its share of shots on goal with the man advantage, but Ottawa's box formation did a good job of denying passing and shooting lanes.

So what happens if you're not moving the puck crisply enough to "break" the box once you have possession in the O-zone? Do as the Blues, and never allow that box to get set up in the first place. And you do that with a well-executed zone entry.

Montreal did a good job of getting pucks to the net on Friday, and here they are recovering the puck off an Ottawa clear after generating two or three shot attempts at the start of the powerplay. Carey Price sets the puck up for Andrei Markov, who will carry it up the ice. P.K. Subban and David Desharnais swing back while Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher are further up the ice.

As a team, one thing worth thinking about is whether you'd like to have a designated carrier to move the puck from the goal line to the red line. Every team has set plays once they get into the zone, but not all have specific, tried-and-true patterns before they get there.

One of the overlooked reasons that the Washington Capitals have had the best powerplay in the league for several years now is that the first unit relies on Marcus Johansson to carry the puck in. It's a no-brainer from the Caps, and everyone else on the ice reads off of him. The results have been pretty good.

Meanwhile at the Bell Centre, Markov has carried the puck past the red line and is about to run into a three-man wall of Ottawa skaters, with one more nipping at his heels, ready to steal the puck away from him.

At the same time, Subban and Desharnais are sitting back on the play, to provide reinforcements in case Markov turns the puck over.

Pacioretty and Gallagher are standing at the blue line, waiting for the puck to cross the line before exploding out of the blocks. Unlike Stastny and Schwartz on the Blues goal, they are not in motion and ready to attack the zone with control. If Markov passes to them, that's an immediate offside.

Markov is not even going to try to stickhandle through three opposing players, so he dumps the puck in.

Gallagher fires up the jets and attempts to retrieve the puck, but his team has just turned a 5-on-4 into a straight 1-on-1 against the boards, a 50-50 play.

Gallagher does well to win the puck battle, and the Habs are set up in their formation. But so are the Senators, who are 15-for-16 on the penalty kill in the series. Montreal has just wasted a valuable opportunity to create chaos on the zone entry. Ottawa will soon recover the puck and get the clear.

A few seconds later, Subban goes back for the puck and tries to do it all over again. Markov and Gallagher swing back, very much like on the previous rush.

The best way to kill a penalty is never to let your opponent come into your zone at all. Mark Stone is aggressive on the forecheck and almost causes a turnover. Subban would maintain control of the puck, but now he's lost quite a bit of momentum, and his teammates are a bit further up the ice than they would like to.

We see Ottawa's familiar three-men wall.

Once again, the puck carrier has no passing options, setting the stage for another dump-in.

...or maybe not.

No one will ever fault Subban for not believing in his own abilities, so despite not having much room to work with, he forces the carry and takes the hit. Cody Ceci's bodycheck separates Subban from the puck, which slides down toward the corner.

The backchecking Mark Stone gets to the puck before Gallagher and Pacioretty, because he's had 50 more feet of ice with which to build up speed, and shoots the puck out of the Ottawa zone. This frame looks very much like a typical two-man forecheck at 5-on-5, except the defending team is free to ice the puck whenever it wants to. Just not a very good place to be in, if you want to score a goal.

What can the Habs do differently in Game 6, then?

First, perhaps they may want to have a speedy forward such as Desharnais or Gallagher attempt the zone entry instead of a defenseman. It would allow the puck carrier to be more aggressive on the carry, knowing that both defensemen are there to back him up in case he turns the puck over.

Second, they may want to stretch the Ottawa "wall" laterally by making a cross-ice pass at some point in the neutral zone. The rink is 85 feet wide, and it's hard to cover the whole thing with just three guys. If the attacking team can spread out of the coverage, it'll be able to open up a corridor along the boards (good) or in the middle of the ice (even better).

If those two things fall in place, then the Habs will be in a good position to enter the zone with control (puck carrier) and speed (non-carriers).

This is the exact moment the Blues hit the offensive zone on their goal. Notice that the Wild use a similar three-man wall + forechecker scheme as the Sens, but the Blues' speed and neutral-zone pass has taken the forechecker out of the play and forced the wall to back up and concede the carry.

Yet another cross-ice pass turns the 3-on-3 at the blue line into a 2-on-1 in favor of St. Louis on one half of the ice. Now Minnesota is scrambling - everyone is trying to find their man.

Minnesota finally gets their box set up on the correct side of the ice, but absolutely no one notices Tarasenko speeding toward the back door. And for good cause - he was on the bench when the puck crossed the red line (another sneaky and effective move by Ken Hitchcock et al.)

All Steen has to do is to slide the puck through to crease to a player no one saw coming.

And it's a powerplay goal made possible by just the right amount of chaos, right off a great zone entry.

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.