Monday, February 23, 2009

Getting The Puck In Net

The Candiens PP Resurgence

The Montreal Canadiens have scored 25 goals on their last 100 powerplays.

Consider that in their first 173 PPs, they only scored 24 times and you start to get the idea about the extent to which a resurgence has occurred.

The difference is marked. 25% in their last 100 PPs as opposed to the lowly 13.8% for the first three months of the season.

How did this happen?

A lot of people point to Mathieu Schneider as the major turning point in the Canadiens PP this season. There is no doubt that he will help bolster an already good PP that refound its form long before his arrival. The 7 PPGs in 12 opportunities since his reinsertion into the Canadiens lineup certainly help to make the numbers look a little rosier.

However, before Schneider there was a first surge. The surge that helped us win all those games we're pretty thankful to have won now – in January.

Game 39
The turnaround as it happens took place some time during a game against the New York Rangers on January 7th. That game, the Canadiens were going in on a 3-game drought PP-wise, a drought they extended from 15 to 17 PPs over the course of the night. While the even-strength goals were going in, the Rangers were able to answer each time. With a PP at 2:29 of the third period, the Canadiens had another opportunity.

Would they score and solidify their position in the game, or would they let another chance go wasting and balance the battle on a knife's edge?

It didn't take long to answer. Plekanec won the PP and Markov was able to snap a shot past a dozing Henrik Lundqvist. It turned that game around, and as it turns out, it seems to have turned around the fortunes of the would-be number one PP of the league (two years running and resurgent). As if to hammer home the homecoming of the 5-man unit, Lang scored an absolute stunner 2 minutes later on a double PP – the play of the game for LIW that night:
It's Robert Lang's goal, but not the one you think - it was his first on the PP. The amazing thing about this whole play, which admittedly was a 5-on-3, was the speed at which the puck covered distance in the Rangers zone. The play essentially starts when Lang having received the puck from Markov, returns the puck to him. Markov readies himself and one-times a pass to Andrei Kostitsyn at the other point (finally Carbo) and he in turn one-times a shot. The shot misses the net but luckily rebounds behind the net cleanly out the other side right to Lang, where he completes the 4-touch play by one-timing a shot himself. Kovalev, not involved in the play himself also played a nice part as he signaled to his old buddy Lang that the puck was coming around cleanly.

This is the Canadiens PP of last season. It's been a long time...

From that time the Canadiens have scored 25 goals in 92 opportunities (that's 27%). I haven't confirmed it with months of calculations, but I'd be willing to bet that's league leading over this period of time.

Even taking away the Schneider games, the Habs still coast to 22.5% clip – already an impressive turnaround in my books.

A lot of the talk about the Habs PP over the past two years has focused naturally on the main protagonists – the goalscorers themselves. In 2006-07, wonder shot Sheldon Souray personally accounted for a score of Canadiens PP goals. The natural fear upon his loss cried for a lost PP. It didn't happen. Pundits scrambled to explain it, Mike Farber said Koivu, others to using regular lines instead of special units; many were just confused.

This year, the commentators love to hone in on missing piece Mark Streit. While I would certainly expect the Canadiens PP to be better with Streit than not (for his passing excellence); I hoped, nay expected, they should find a way around the Streit and Ryder losses with the core of talent they had: Kovalev, Koivu, Tanguay, Markov, Kostitsyn, Higgins, Lang.

I was pretty certain back last season, as I am now that most of the success on the PP can be traced pretty reliably to one person in particular:
"His tricks on the PP include breakout passes, gaining the zone, keeping the puck in, simple passing, cross-ice seeing eye passing, shooting from the point, and pinching when appropriate. His biggest trick is how he manages to do all this and garner hardly a mention from the critics who drooled over Souray.

If you watch him on the ice, watch his eyes. What you can see is concentration, poise and vision at the line. He passes and sets himself up for the next play seconds ahead of the opposition. He inherently knows where Koivu and Kovalev will be. When to pass to Streit and when to take on the defenders."

At the beginning of this resurgence, we said this of the player who had the power to kick this PP back into gear:
"If the PP is back for a short stay, it's because he has dragged it back. His goal on the PP was opportunistic and patient at the same time. He sprung to get to the puck but waited to unleash his accurate wrist shot until Lundqvist was sliding. His involvement in the second PP goal was textbook Doug Jarvis PP work. His game up front was impressive and his game on defence this game was solid, despite being on the ice fr a couple of goals. That's to say, his play also prevented a number of chances."

The maestro is Andrei Markov, of course. Fitting that his goal started this road to recovery. Fitting that he set up the most beautiful PP goal of the season (that Lang goal). And, it's fitting that he should be recognised now.

Because although Schneider has provided an indubitable spark, it is Markov who directs, assists and maintains the Canadiens PP. His most recent game was a primo performance from the maestro.

The addition of Mathieu Schneider should do two things immediately:

1) Get more accurate and powerful shots on goalies
2) And, more importantly, make opposing coaches think about the Canadiens PP again

For a long stretch, the Canadiens did not have a viable option on the point fr the PP. This was before Kovalev made his move back there, before Andrei Kostitsyn was tried and before Josh Gorges had any clue what he should do outside his own zone. They have since regained themselves, so adding Schneider comes at a good time – it gives the team a bonus option.

With Schneider, the team can set up for a shot from the point instead of trying to jam the puck in from the side of the net. They will still try to jam it in – but should have more space to do it with the defenders worried about Schneider.

The goal of the PP
It is sometimes forgotten, but the goal of PPs across this league is to discourage people from taking penalties. The penalties in place, of course, to discourage people from breaking the rules as they are on that night.

A team with a good PP benefits doubly from it. Not only will they score many goals, but the opposition must play them cleanly.

A team playing at full force and full energy (can anyone remember that? other than the last game guys...) can then win battles and put the other team into a series of compromising dilemmas – let the man go free or hook/trip/crosscheck to prevent the opening at risk of a PP.

I give Benoit Brunet a hard time, but I wanted to highlight probably the most insightful thing I have heard during a hockey broadcast in an age. It was said during the good times, of course, but it still applies. When discussing Georges Laraque and the way the Canadiens were being disrespected around the league, he said (something like):
"The way to get people to stop roughing you up and disrespecting you isn't to have an enforcer; the way is to punish them by scoring goals with a god PP"

Hit them where it hurts, so to speak. On the scoreboard, in the standings. Nobody reels from a black eye to a guy who plays to fight for a living (that is a sideshow). Hit Koivu from behind: Markov scores on the PP. High-stick Kovalev: Kostitsyn rifles one home on the PP. A coach will not stand for penalties that cost the team. So long as they don't, he will (maybe not publicly).

The Canadiens need to heed this great advice from number 17/22.

Matt Schneider has been here for 3 games, but I think it is fair to say we haven't seen the full potential of this addition yet. The next game for example, no self-respecting coach will fail to note to his team that Montreal is 58% on the PP over the last 3 games. No coach will fail to notice that the Habs have scored 12 goals since his arrival.

I think we should start to see a few less liberties taken by opposition players, opening up the ice for the Plekanecs of the team who love the open surface. I think the Canadiens will have the potential to hammer home leads like they once did using the PP. I think it should change the complexion of things from here on. I think the brain-dead calls to trade Andrei Markov will dry up like the Okavango in the Kalahari.

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