Strategically Speaking

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been something special this season when playing from behind. They were down heading into the third period in 4 of their last 6 games and came back to win 3 of those 4, carrying on the trend of resiliency that’s shown itself down the stretch last season, all throughout the playoffs, and now continued into the first half of 2016-2017.

This is not a coincidence. Of course, the Pens have hardly ever been an easy win for opposition in more than a decade. They’re a perrenial playoff team. They’re often in the chatter for legitimate Stanley Cup contender. It’s easy to say they’re just doing what they’ve always done. Statistically they are, but it’s because execution-wise they’re doing what they haven’t always done.

One major example of something new is the power play which I’ve talked about before. Instead of perimeter passing (which usually starts everyone trading favorite shirts and first borns for just one single shot on net), players are actually moving around the zone along with the puck.

Another is that the defence overall, and in particular Trevor Daley, are much more active up and down the ice.

The latest trend, which is also my favorite, is the team concept of attacking the middle of the ice with the puck. It’s not uncommon to find a player skating through the middle without the puck and hoping for a little chip, but usually the puck starts from the outside, crosses the blueline, then goes to the middle. The Penguins are all speed and they’ve taken to attacking the middle lane with puck possession, driving the defence back, gaining the zone through the middle with the puck, and then pushing it wide. This is the exact opposite of tradition and it’s causing the opposition fits of confusion. It’s not only one line either. It’s Crosby and Sheary, but it’s also Hagelin, Kessel, Cullen, and Kuhnackl. Everyone is in on it.

Taking it a step further, they’ve gained so much confidence and have teams backing off so much that now they’re not just skating it up the middle; they’re even passing it right up the gut into no man’s land…and getting away with it.

In Florida this week Crosby should have been pretty much career-over dead. He took an intentional suicide pass at the blue line and, uncertain how to handle this, the Florida defence were flat footed and hesitant to commit. They collided just as Crosby squeezed through for the 2 on 0. It lead to a goal of puck luck, but the boldness of the pass combined with the leg strength of Crosby earned them the luck.

Another example of how Pittsburgh is earning their puck luck is Crosby’s miracle goal from his stomach in Tampa the very next game. Conor Sheary had no business keeping the puck. He did finally get knocked down about three pushes later than most, but he just got right back up, and then had the presence of mind to find his target and make the play. The athleticism and talent of Crosby did the rest.

Other teams are either strong, speedy, resilient, or innovative. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen a team be all four things at the same time, and these Penguins are that team. These four things and the driving the puck into unpredicted areas lately are allowing them to score the kinds of goals no other team can score. They’ve won 5 straight, never scoring less than 4 goals and picking up 28 total goals in that stretch. That’s 5.6 goals per game, or more than 2 full goals better than the current goals per game leading New York Rangers (3.46). Having so many different ways to score makes no deficit unsurmountable.

Connor McDavid of Edmonton is just beginning his journey to what will likely be the World’s Best Player label. McDavid’s best asset is his explosive speed. Curiously, the Oilers are the only other team that’s been consistently trying to drive down the pipe with possession and it’s paid off there as well.

The greatest player in the game and the future greatest are emulating each other with this style and, oddly enough, are 1-2 in league scoring. The Oilers using this strategy with a spotted lineup are respectable again, and the Penguins using it with a deep roster are downright unstoppable.

They say repeating as champs in the NHL is the hardest thing to do, but even if you have the same players, if you’re not the same type of team, technically it’s not repeating.

 

 

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