“Your goalie has to be your best penalty killer.”
This is one of those old hockey maxims that is inescapable during any discussion of penalty-kill systems. In reality, it’s completely wrong. If your goalie has to be your best penalty killer, then your penalty kill probably stinks.
While “stinks” is probably a little harsh, it’s no secret that the Montreal Canadiens’ penalty killing under Michel Therrien was, let’s say, suboptimal, and that it has significantly improved under Claude Julien.
Most of the discussion has centred around Carey Price’s short-handed “return” to form since Julien’s arrival. For sure, Carey Price has looked more like Carey Price since the bye week and the coaching change. However, he didn't suddenly become a better overall goalie against power plays than he was before. What’s changed is that under Julien, Price no longer has to be the team’s best penalty killer.
The Habs’ penalty kill has improved in several significant ways with the recent regime change. Let’s break the penalty kill into sections, and look at some comparative examples.
Playing outside the defensive zone, and defending zone entries
Working geographically, the first way to prevent goals on the power play is to prevent the offence from crossing the blue line. This would be through forechecking, and defending zone entries.
The difference in forechecking from Therrien to Julien is minimal, as it likely would be compared to most teams. In short-handed situations, usually a single forechecker is utilized, just to slow things up a little and maybe force the play to one side or the other. Occasionally, two aggressive forecheckers might disrupt a play, but will usually retreat to avoid getting caught behind the play and creating a two-man disadvantage.
Here’s Brian Flynn filling the role of a single forechecker under Therrien: against Boston on Feb 12.
Not a whole lot of difference here as Torrey Mitchell forechecks against Columbus on February 28.
Pretty simple. One forechecker is the norm.
Now we’re getting into some differences. It didn’t take very long. Under Therrien, disrupting zone entries at the point of attack didn’t seem to be a significant priority.
The Buffalo Sabres have a pretty good power play. Watch the ease with which they obtain the offensive zone against the Canadiens’ top unit.
Rasmus Ristolainen (55) skates the puck into the neutral zone up to Tomas Plekanec, drops it well back to Ryan O’Reilly (90), and continues to the Habs’ blue line. O’Reilly takes the puck and skates it into the left offensive zone past Plekanec, until he’s challenged by Shea Weber partway down the boards.
Sam Reinhart (23) provides support, already positioned against the wall behind O’Reilly. He collects the puck after Weber’s challenge, protects it, and releases it back to Ristolainen at the point.
That was … easy.
The Carolina Hurricanes’ Noah Hanifin (5), Teuvo Teravainen (86), and Justin Faulk went one better on November 18, generating a scoring chance on Al Montoya directly off a similar entry play.
Here’s a 5-on-4 zone entry by Colorado on February 7.
Nathan McKinnon (29) carries the puck, uncontested, until he enters the offensive zone, then he flips a pass to Mikko Rantanen (96), who is lightly contested by Paul Byron. Rantanen sends the puck to Nikita Zadorov, alone at the left point, who flubs the reception.
The Avs are forced to regroup because of their own mistake, and Brian Flynn creates some havoc until the Habs change personnel, and this happens.
Gabriel Landeskog (92) skates full speed up the centre of the ice, unchallenged, and the only thing that prevents Matt Nieto (83) from a breakaway is Torrey Mitchell’s mid-air deflection, which leads to a puck battle and a defensive-zone faceoff.
When Landeskog crosses the blue line, all four Habs penalty killers are surrounding him, but none challenge his entry.
This configuration is recurrent under Therrien. Alexander Wennberg (10) was easily able to gain the zone in Columbus on November 4, and dish to Sam Gagner (89) on the wing while Cam Atkinson (13) drives up the centre of the ice. All four Canadiens are focused on Wennberg, yet none of them takes a position to significantly challenge him. Atkinson would later score on this zone possession.
Here’s a slight variation. Jake Voracek (93) crosses the neutral zone in Philadelphia on February 2.
Jacob de la Rose has backed off his forecheck, and the other three penalty killers are lined up on the blue line. Voracek is unimpeded across the line. By the time the puck enters the offensive zone, the penalty killers have all retreated.
Within a few strides, Voracek has given up the puck to Brayden Schenn (10) at the point, and driven into the zone. De la Rose alone is left to defend Schenn, Wayne Simmonds (17), and Mark Streit (32) as the Flyers establish control in the offensive zone.
Occasionally, against less organized rushes or while changing, a neutral-zone forechecker would attempt to disrupt the play, but this strategy was often unsuccessful. Here, Colorado’s Matt Duchene (9) is allowed free access across the blue line as Weber and Emelin retreat, while Phillip Danault recovers from his neutral-zone check attempt.
To be fair, the PK units did have some successful entry disruptions, like these against Minnesota.
Far too often, however, opponents were allowed to gain entry into the offensive zone with speed and support.
The difference under Claude Julien was visible as early as the first day back from the bye week, as his new team faced Winnipeg in Montreal. The Jets attempt three zone entries during their first-period power play. All of them are successful, but unlike in previous examples, the entries are challenged either at the blue line, or just inside the zone.
The basic 1-3 configuration at the blue line remained, but the approach was more aggressive, as the back group held their ground at the blue line and challenged the puck carrier.
This wasn’t always successful at first, as this rush by the Rangers shows, but at least the attempt to disrupt the play is evident.
Just a few days later, the Habs show the Islanders a slightly different look that results in a dump in from the point, rather than a controlled setup. Byron and Plekanec show a two-man forecheck after a short-handed rush.
Josh Bailey (12) is allowed to cross the blue line, but he’s challenged there by both Weber and Emelin.
John Tavares (91) heads for the deep corner, but Emelin disrupts his path while Byron joins Weber in challenging Bailey. Though the Islanders would gain possession and a shot attempt, there was significant time spent contesting the puck below the goal line.
By the time the Habs played Columbus on March 10, the penalty-kill positioning is more aggressive, from Mitchell’s lone forecheck to the positioning and challenge speed of the back line in the neutral zone. Again, this entry is successful, but it’s because Columbus executes flawlessly under pressure and not because they’re simply allowed to do what they want.
The Habs’ defencemen have also seemed more willing to attack the blue line when facing chaotic offensive setups. For example, compare Jordie Benn’s challenge against Bo Horvat to Duchene’s entry earlier. The Habs’ forwards are caught behind the play, but Benn steps up to the blue line and takes the puck away from Horvat rather than simply retreating and waiting for the forwards to recover and defend.
Even during the 5-0 disaster in Calgary, the penalty kill was successful in its only attempt. After a previous successful carry-in by Johnny Gaudreau (13), the Flames’ forward again drives through the neutral zone. Note the same 1-3 defensive alignment as the Habs have used all along.
This time, though, Max Pacioretty aggressively directs Gaudreau toward TJ Brodie (7), and Shea Weber stands his ground at the blue line. The result is that Gaudreau is boxed in, and loses the puck.
On Tuesday evening, Jordie Benn executed a similar challenge against Chicago’s Patrick Kane (88) as he tried to carry the puck into the zone between Richard Panik (14) and Duncan Keith (2).
Kane ends up losing his footing as well as the puck, and the Hawks were denied a final rush at the end of their power play.
Obviously, not every zone entry can be defended successfully. Against Edmonton, for example, Connor McDavid (97) was given a healthy amount of respect as he blazed across the blue line and Mark Letestu (55) drove defenders back.
Once inside the zone, though, the Oilers were challenged by more of the positive changes that Julien has introduced.
That’s the next instalment, though. Stay tuned for Part II coming soon.