Olivier of En Attendant Les Nordiques tracked the scoring chances for the Pens-Habs series. There were a pair of articles that prompted me to take a look at the quantity and quality of chances that the Pens and Habs were getting when Sidney Crosby was on the ice in that series. Roy MacGregor had an article in the Globe and Mail on Friday about what he sees as the silliness of the obsession with systems at the NHL level:
“We’ll be all right,” the player smothered in a scrum of cameras and microphones will say, “so long as we stick to our system.”
It has a heft unlike so many other meaningless hockey phrases – “Our best players have to be our best players”; “We can’t get too high and can’t get too low”; “We have to take it one game at a time”; “It is what it is” – in that the mere word “systems” has the air of a secret handshake, or else could conceivably be some plan so complicated that the pickled brain of the average hockey writer could not possibly comprehend its intricacies.
Coaches speak of “time and space” as if it were quantum physics not merely a goofy new phrase for checking. They speak of “gaps” as if they could be as finitely measured and set as those on spark plugs.
Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma actually said last week that he wanted his team to be playing “north of the puck” – whatever that means.
The truth is that these so-called systems are about as complicated as going to the fridge for a beer between periods.
“Let’s fact it,” says Bob Hartley, who coached the Colorado Avalanche to a previous Stanley Cup, “there’s not 25 ways to play hockey.
“It’s really pretty simple.
“You show me a good system and I’ll show you a good goaltender.”
A day or two later, Elliotte Friedman published this:
I really thought Pittsburgh had an excellent strategy in getting wingers to accept less money, knowing they would have a chance to win and put up good numbers alongside Crosby and Malkin. That strategy was exposed by the Canadiens, who refused to let Malkin/Crosby carry the puck through the neutral zone, daring anyone else to beat them.
A few years ago, I attended the Roger Neilson coaches’ clinic. One of the featured speakers was Penguins assistant Mike Yeo, who gave a presentation about the Pittsburgh offence. (He didn’t give away any secrets, just explained it so idiots like me could understand.) Yeo talked about the area just inside the opponents’ blueline, and how his team liked to set everything up from there. (Maple Leafs assistant Keith Acton once said that if you can’t control that area against this team, you’ll get killed.)
With The Big Two cocooned, the Penguins were forced to chip and chase. Montreal actually allowed them to win the races, choosing instead to set up a perimeter around Jaroslav Halak. It surprised and confused Pittsburgh, leading towards the epic Game 7 meltdown.
I still like Pittsburgh’s strategy. Great players are hard to find; so long as you’ve got ‘em, you’re probably better off than you would be screwing around and trying to turn them into other players. To address a point Friedman made elsewhere in his piece, I think that they might have screwed up paying Malkin and Fleury the way that they did but that’s neither here nor there. What I’m taken by is the suggestion that refusing to let Malkin/Crosby carry the puck through the neutral zone was key.
To start with, this doesn’t really make a ton of sense to me in that I don’t perceive the NHL in general as a league in which goals are scored off the rush. In general, Malkin seems like more of a threat off the rush to me than does Crosby. If you asked me what makes Crosby so great, I’d so that he’s so dominant and elusive below the goal line. In the Ottawa series, Pittsburgh scored about 8 goals off the rush – I’m defining this pretty charitably and including things like stretch passes, of which there were a couple; only one of these saw Crosby or Malkin carrying the puck through the neutral zone. I went back and looked through the regular season games – this was all I could find in terms of Montreal versus Pittsburgh:
So, while I have no doubt that it’s preferable that Crosby and Malkin don’t have the puck on their stick, I’m still a bit doubtful with respect to the suggestion that Crosby and Malkin were cocooned. I have other things in my life, so I’m just going to take a look at Crosby. The argument seems to be about the quantity and quality of the chances generated – in effect, that Montreal was able to limit the quality and quantity of chances that Crosby was able to generate. I’m just going to look at even strength scoring; Crosby had a pretty miserable series, with just a single goal. Chance wise, Olivier had the Pens trouncing the Habs at 46-29 with Crosby on the ice. The quantity, I would suggest was there – 46-29 is a an awfully large spread.
While we have no way of actually measuring the quality of the chances, I figured I’d go through the games and did screen saves of the shots that each team was generating when Olivier was recording a chance. It’s not as good as video, which seems damned near impossible to get, but it’s pretty useful nonetheless, in that it gives us an idea of where the teams were shooting from. I’ll probably roll this out over a couple of weeks, as it takes some time to get the pictures taken. As always, I’m looking at even strength only. Away we go:
Game 1 (Pens with Crosby 1, Montreal 3)
Olivier has just a single chance here and the Kunitz shot from the slot is the one he has marked. The second one – Crosby makes a nice little pass from behind the net into the slot – actually seems like a considerably better chance to me.
MTL 2 4:24 94 20 21 41 44 91 94 9 24 29 44 58 87 5v5
Gomez shot from slot
MTL 3 19:37 13 13 14 26 32 41 75 13 14 29 44 55 87 5v5
MTL shot from slot
A very generic looking scoring chance
Slapshot from point, deflected
This is only a scoring chance because of the deflection I think. Pretty harmless looking otherwise.
All in all, Montreal can probably claim to have shut Crosby down in this game. It probably bears mentioning that Pittsburgh led most of the way and Montreal didn’t really seem to be pressing so much as they were just kind of hoping for power plays.
Game 2 (Pens with Crosby 8, Montreal 2)
Dump-in takes a bounce, leading to Montreal shot from high slot
Pass to Gionta in the slot who scores
Crosby backhand pass out of the corner to Kunitz for shot
Pass that Crosby lets go, Eaton gets a shot
The best thing about doing this is you get a chance to see all of the smart little plays that Crosby makes. I did two pictures here so that you could see the play Crosby made. The pass comes to him and he has the presence of mind to realize Eaton is in a better spot to shoot. Rather than try to make a play on the puck, he lifts his leg and lets it go through. Eaton gets a good chance.
Shot from the slot
Guerin/Kunitz in the slot.
It doesn’t really show up in the picture but Olivier was probably charitable in only giving a single chance here. All three Penguins forwards, including Crosby, got whacks at the puck with complete chaos in front of the Montreal net.
Guerin from behind the net
I might not have labelled this one a chance. Guerin threw it out front from behind the net but Halak got there first.
Crosby pass to Malkin
This, I suppose is, why you don’t want Crosby and Malkin carrying the puck. Malkin carried it over the blue line, dished to Crosby and went to the net for the deflection.
Backhand chance in front
This was a better chance than it looked – Halak had to move quickly. Note the bodies in front. Kennedy, who is to Malkin’s right, took the shot from his backhand.
Crosby floats puck through the crease
You can see the puck going through the crease here. If Geno is a step or two further ahead or if Tyler Kennedy is a few feet closer, there’s an excellent chance that back ends up behind Halak. It’s hard to see what the Canadiens are doing, systems wise, that prevents that. Looking at the game as a whole, the Gionta chance was probably the best chance of the night but I see about four Pens chances that are in that ballpark – the Guerin/Kunitz assault, Kennedy’s backhand, Crosby to Malkin off the rush and Crosby sliding the puck through the crease.
Games 3 and 4 to come, most likely next weekend.