The playoffs are a different animal than the regular season. The games become more physical, the urgency and intensity levels rise, and distinct Cup characteristics separate the wheat from the chaff. With the full 82-game schedule nearly complete, now seems like a good time to examine the five most difficult sequences to stop among all postseason-bound teams.
Max Pacioretty stretching the zone
Anyone who plays the Canadiens knows it is coming. Max Pacioretty seems to procure multiple scoring chances every single game, and one of the reasons is his innate sense of when to stretch the zone and leak out. Pacioretty is a big, strong power forward who plays uninhibited on one-on-ones and odd-man rushes. The Habs winger and his teammates recognize an opportunity when all three opposing forwards are working hard below the dots on the forecheck and one or both defensemen are pinching. If his teammate gains possession of the puck, Pacioretty flies through the middle.
The Canadiens play a conservative game that relies heavily on their all-world goaltender Carey Price, but they also want to be quick strike on the counterattack. When Montreal blocks a shot – the team is ranked third in the NHL in shot blocks – or forces a turnover, that is seen as a possible scoring opportunity and they will try to catch the team off guard that is hemming them in their zone. An attempt will be made to find Pacioretty with a direct or area pass.
The first video below provides a great view at the 25-second mark, where Pacioretty sees daylight and sprints toward freedom.
Even in real time, you can see him read the situation and fly the zone as soon as the puck is up for grabs. The second video is more right place, right time. Pacioretty finds himself near the blue line and all five Bruins skaters blitz below the circles.
It leads to an easy breakaway goal. For a final example, click here for Pacioretty’s breakway goal against the Bruins in last year’s playoffs where he beats Zdeno Chara to the inside of the ice and scores.
Pacioretty is the first Canadiens player with back-to-back 35-goal seasons since Vincent Damphousse in 1992-93 and 1993-94. He has soft hands and uses his puck-handling ability and size to beat defenders to the middle of the ice. His shot is hard and precise, and he has the natural scoring finesse to execute the path to goal in a fast, fluid movement.
The Canadiens’ flaws are well documented. They are a poor possession team. They rank 25th in shots per game and 23rd in shots against. Their Scoring Chances Differential is 24th in the NHL, slightly better than Arizona and worse than New Jersey, per war-on-ice. Montreal’s ideology is outmoded for what the NHL has become – a pace-and-space, possession-centric league. The Habs are too reliant on too few players to drive their success. But in Pacioretty, Montreal has that coveted vertical threat who can beat teams over the top and force opponents to keep one less man on the forecheck. If they cheat, it leads to Pacioretty exploding down the ice for a breakaway.
Vladimir Tarasenko’s faceoff isolations and power-play curls off the half-wall
There is a lot of discussion about who is the most exciting player in the NHL, and Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko is in that discussion. Tarasenko’s on-a-string puck control, balance, and swift shot release make him a deadly scoring threat, and St. Louis is shrewd in how they isolate him.
When Tarasenko is teamed with fellow winger Jaden Schwartz and centers Jori Lehtera or Paul Stastny, coach Ken Hitchcock is teaming the sniper with high-end distributors who can draw attention and manpower before dishing it to Tarasenko with space. Like for Ovechkin and some of the NHL’s other elite snipers, faceoffs provide Tarasenko with a spatial advantage. If the Blues can win the faceoff, Tarasenko will have a second to survey his target before sling-shotting a release, as displayed in the video below.
On power plays, Tarasenko is flanked along the half-wall most often on his off side, and St. Louis will work the puck to him after some faux motion on the opposite side or around the goal line. The idea is to give Tarasenko room; if the winger likes what he sees, he can curl off the wall along the top of the circle and pick a corner.
Bolts’ cross-ice passes
The Team Hextally chart – provided by war-on-ice – for the Tampa Bay Lightning is very helpful for demonstrating how powerful the Bolts are offensively. In short, they accrue tons of shots around the crease and low slot, and accumulate more shots than the league average in the home-plate area. Moreover, they are very, very good at finishing in that crease, low-slot region. Tampa Bay gets to the prime real estate and they convert on their scoring chances. That seems noteworthy, and provides a nice complement to their elite possession numbers.
But the favorite pet set for these guys is the cross-ice pass, and it is executed flawlessly by Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov. How that line continues to basically play catch on opposite sides of the rink is probably one of the most amazing constants in hockey this season. Both of the goals shown below are on the power play, and the man advantage is definitely tailored for the horizontal pass to thrive (although Johnson and Kucherov achieve the cross-ice pass at even strength as well).
In the first video, after Johnson almost scores right off the faceoff, the puck comes back to Anton Stralman who does a nice job of keeping the puck in. Stralman backhands the puck to Kucherov, who is skating backwards toward the wall, but is also facing the net, keeping his shooting and passing lanes open. Once Kucherov gets below the circle, he stops and zips a pass across to Johnson, who stops the puck before rifling it into the back of the net.
First, there is incredible awareness by Kucherov to know exactly where he is, and where he is going, without a quick peek, all while he is scanning the opposing skaters in front of him. Second, stop the video at the 17 second mark; how does he get that pass through!? What does he see there?! From this vantage point, it looks like a lot of bodies blocking the passing lane, but Kucherov and Johnson are wizards, and routinely make that pass through the seam.
The second goal is aided by some nice off-the-puck interference by Alex Killorn, who accidentally-on-purpose obstructs the opposing skater in the middle from stopping the pass through the middle.
Still, that is an unbelievable pass by Kucherov. The video starts with him examining the coverage before whipping the puck diagonally, cross ice, right onto the tape of Johnson’s stick. Johnson casually settles the puck before firing it into the open net.
There is something beautiful about the repetition component to the Alexander Ovechkin one-timer. It is like a Broadway actor who consistently delivers his very best performance on a nightly basis. When Washington achieves the man advantage, Ovechkin saunters to his spot along the top of the left circle, and lets the Capitals’ four skaters set the table for him.
The video below starts with Nicklas Backstrom gliding up the boards before passing to Mike Green, who promptly moves the puck to Ovie.
This video is instructive because the puck does not go in on the first attempt, allowing viewers to see some of the process before the result. Troy Brouwer, the man in the slot, retrieves the puck below the goal line and, as soon as he passes it to Backstrom, the play speeds up. The Blues are frantic because they realize their coverage has unraveled, and the Great Eight is wide open above the left circle. Green does a nice sell job on the fake, forcing Elliot to face him before he throws it to Ovechkin for the setup pass. Ovechkin takes the one-timer just above the dot of the left circle.
When the aperture reveals itself, Ovechkin hammers the puck with such force that, even if Elliot had his body in position to block the puck, it is not a guarantee it would have been stopped. Ovechkin’s one-timer is basically impossible to defend, and even though power plays cannot be relied on in the postseason, drawing a penalty against the Capitals is playing with fire.
Malkin vs. everybody
From a pure talent standpoint, watching Evgeni Malkin try to beat an entire team is probably the most incredible hockey play to watch. Like a heat-seeking missile, Malkin blazes past and around obstacles toward the net, and one of the biggest problems is that sometimes he is moving too fast to utilize the best shot or deke possible. It is apparent that Pittsburgh is giving him the green light when they lay him a drop pass and everyone shuffles to the side, trying to get out of his way.
In this video from last season, Malkin comes around the net looking for the individual effort.
As stated above, by the time Malkin reaches the goal, he almost fails to finish the play because he is moving so fast and gets tripped up. But Malkin is a generational talent, so he still manages to record the helper.
In the next video, Malkin circles the puck that was just coughed up and then moves along the x-axis waiting for the Penguins to control the puck off the turnover.
Once Malkin receives the pass, he blows past Dougie Hamilton and pulls up just before the top of the left circle for a slap shot, unleashing a laser into the top right corner.
While Malkin can be puck-dominant, he is always seeking more time and space, and likes to run give-and-go’s and work off the puck in the offensive and neutral zones in pursuit of that objective. Pittsburgh’s offense, which is perpetually injured and afflicted with a lack of top-to-bottom roster talent, will sometimes give Malkin the puck above the circles in the defensive zone during a reset or when the opposing team is changing, and let him go one-on-five. Malkin with speed through the neutral zone is every opponent’s nightmare, so allowing him a few cracks at the solo effort makes sense for a Penguins squad that struggles to score. It also happens to be an unstoppable play that viewers will enjoy seeing in the upcoming playoffs.