All posts by toughcallblog

Young Guys Possess Veteran Traits

The young guns of the Pittsburgh Penguins weren’t long learning from the veterans about winning. Two Stanley Cups in two seasons means most of the up and comers don’t know what losing is. Watching Sidney Crosby every day must be a great motivator.

Conor Sheary skates low with the leg strength style and passing vision of captain Crosby. Bryan Rust has the sheer determination of Patric Hornqvist. And the best of the young guns, Jake Guentzel, is a hybrid of just about everyone.

Something that makes Guentzel stand out more than all the rest is his hockey sense. Whether it’s natural or adopted, there can be no doubt it’s been at the very least nurtured by his surroundings. Watch here as he makes space for Crosby by eliminating the stick of the defenseman at the blue line.

This is a very little thing but it goes a long way to creating one or two extra chances a game that other teams don’t get. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are famous for subtly moving sticks away in the slot to open up shooting windows. It looks like this trait is being passed on to the next generation.

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Was The Reaves Fight Untimely?

It was quite a first period in Thursday night’s game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and bitter rivals Columbus Blue Jackets.

With about five minutes left in the 0-0 frame, Penguins tough guy Ryan Reaves threw a beautifully clean and electrifying hit against Columbus’s Markus Hannikainen. As happens in this era, Reaves was immediately challenged/jumped by Lukas Sedlak.

Reaves essentially three punched Sedlak and the fight was over before it really began. The crowd loved it, and the Penguins still ended up on the power play because of an extra roughing penalty given to Sedlak for voluntarily getting himself into that mess.

Now, it worked out Pittsburgh got a pretty nice immmediate trifecta out of it. A huge hit, a clear fight decision and a powerplay. The crowd ate it up.

On the other hand, Columbus wasn’t getting great energy so far in the game. The Penguins had some serious jump and had all the lines rolling, something they haven’t been able to do for some time. Reaves and his unit in particular were playing very effectively. He took himself out of that mix and had his bench scattered for 5 minutes.

So with knowing the possible positive outcomes gained by fighting and still taking the current game situation into consideration, if you were Reaves would you have dropped the mitts or would you have declined?

Penguins’ Improvement At 5-on-5

When you work hard, eventually you get rewarded. As much as it’s hard to keep believing this when you’re not getting the bounces, it proves itself true time and time again.

After slumping offensively by Pittsburgh standards for most of the season, Penguins players up and down the roster are finally being rewarded in spades.

Sidney Crosby‘s non-controversial goal on November 24th against Boston explains a lot about the scoring mentality the Penguins possess.

He used his magic hands to knock the puck out of midair, then stayed with it as it landed on goaltender Anton Khudobin‘s stomach. With surgical precision under pressure, he cleanly flicked the puck from stomach to net with a will to score that wouldn’t be denied.

This will continue to be transmitted throughout that locker room and everyone is benefitting. While they may have been struggling to finish chances, this desire has never waivered.

I know it’s hard to think of an NHL player as not wanting to score, but it’s all about appearances. Does a player always have his stick on the ice in the dirty areas? Does a player shoot and then turn away, or shoot and then follow the shot to the net? Does a player ever take a chance that the puck will squirt by a defender and cheat to the weak side knowing full well that if it doesn’t he’ll be caught out of position?

Some players just don’t have offensive awareness. Some players just don’t compete for those loose pucks. That’s what makes guys like Patric Hornqvist, for example, so special. He’s in the net just as often as the puck is, and if you think everyone wants to score as much as he does think about why we miss him so much when he’s out of the lineup.

Then we have to look at Bryan Rust. It’s always fun to see someone streak in on a breakaway, pick his spot, and snipe it first try. What’s more exciting is the breakaway goal Rust scored against Philadelphia. He blocked a shot, which is awesome enough. Then he won a battle up the ice, fighting off the defender to win a scoring chance. The most positive thing of all is how even though he didn’t get everything on his shot, he followed up and stuck with it long enough to take that little extra stab. He ended up knocking it in with the shaft of his stick. Had he not had the will to score, the desire to follow that puck through, it would have been just another missed opportunity for someone who didn’t do everything possible to try and score.

Hornqvist got one off the shaft of his stick in the same period, simply by never giving up on the puck. Jake Guentzel then tied the game with 1:04 left by making sure he did everything he could to get some kind of touch. It went off his body and in.

Earlier in the year, the grittiness was missing. Over the past two weeks it’s been building but not producing. Now it’s finally balancing out. Those aren’t lucky bounces. Those are payments earned.

Pens Trying To Find Footing 5-on-5

The Pittsburgh Penguins can’t score at even strength. Who’d have predicted that? How does this keep happening with the roster they have? It can’t always be an issue of running into a hot goalie. Not every night.

You could just say they’ve gone cold, but that doesn’t explain how the power play is in the league top five, holding them in most games when needed.

You could ask them to shoot the puck more, but the Penguins are in the top 3 in shots on goal per game to date so shooting more in general isn’t an automatic fix.

The penalty kill is enhancing the problem operating at a bottom five rate, meaning a single well timed 5 on 5 goal could make or break a game for this team. That might make you think they should just take less penalties, but historically they’ve been in the bottom half of the league in penalty kills per game and it hasn’t been an issue.

Pittsburgh was 26th in the NHL in 2014-15 in this category. They bumped up to 16th the following year, then repeated as Cup Champions despite being 20th in kills per game in 2016-17.

There’s no deep analysis that explains the lack of even strength scoring. There’s no statistical evidence suggesting a trend or giving us hope they just need to do “x” and this will all go away. The Penguins just have to be better. Period.

Scoring slumps are frustrating, but usually nothing more than that. The only time they get terrifying is when the scoring chances aren’t there. As long as chances are being created, I believe they’ll eventually go in.

Deep Attack

I grew up playing at the end of a now unrecognizable hockey era. We were literally taught to clutch and grab. There was an actual back checking drill where you’d hook a guy through the neutral zone so he couldn’t charge your defenseman going back to get the puck, and then you’d time letting him go so when your defenceman was ready with possession, the forechecker would be about halfway between you and the puck, leaving your defenceman safe and you wide open for the pass. It was blatant strategic obstruction.

Obviously over the years the NHL sought to get rid of that. The obstruction interference rule was introduced. The red line was taken out. It was all about stretch passes and speed. For decades they thought opening up the game would lead to more offence and less frustration.

But the people behind the scenes of individual teams are smart. They’re part of an NHL organization for a reason. Coaches are front and centre, but what about those video analysis guys? The special teams guys? The strategists who provide vital information to coaches and players? The Pittsburgh Penguins organization is littered with hockey geniuses. I’d have to believe the video teams and opponent breakdown people are some of the best.

As the game looked for three line passes and end to end action, teams adapted almost immediately to defend this revolution that was supposed to let superstars be superstars and increase scoring. Since the “real crackdown” on obstruction after the 2005 NHL lockout, what we’ve seen in reality is success by teams who know how to slow the game down in other ways.

Of the 12 Stanley Cup Championships since 2005, eight of them were won by three teams (Pittsburgh – 3, Chicago – 3, and Los Angeles – 2), and a ninth Cup was won by the franchise those other three tried to emulate: the 2008 Mike Babcock coached Detroit Red Wings. Oddly enough, Mike Babcock used to be the coach of the Anaheim Ducks, who reached the 2003 finals, losing to the not so offensive minded New Jersey Devils. The Anaheim franchise went on to win its Cup in 2007.

The formula for victory of these repeatedly winning teams isn’t overwhelming oppponents with long range passes. It isn’t spreading the ice out, or racing up and down in a series of back forth end to end blitzes.

It’s now a game of possession. Instead of spreading out, it’s keeping close and methodically picking your way up the ice together. Instead of two defencemen and three forwards it’s a unit of 5 players making coordinated 5-10 foot passes, staying close enough to make the pass easy but far enough away from each other that one opponent can’t defend two of you.

This is a concept that was perfected by the Detroit Red Wings early on. It was adapted by the most successful teams over the past 12 years, including the Penguins. Now, the Mike Sullivan era Pittsburgh Penguins and their video staff have also discovered the antidote.

There’s one difference between the Penguins and the other dominant post obstruction teams. The Blackhawks, the Kings, the Bruins, the Sharks, the Ducks, the Lightning, and the Wings ALL consistently finish in the NHL top 10 for fewest shots on goal against. They frequently appear in the top 5 even. The Penguins repeatedly finish in the BOTTOM 5.

I’ve said before that I don’t really buy into the whole shot differential being that important, but I just want to show how the Pens have never had the extremely deep defensive core of the Red Wings or the Blackhawks or the Kings or the Bruins. They’ve had Kris Letang and a handful of known unprovens who are always listed as the team liability and always mentioned as the thing the team wins in spite of, not because of. They’ve had Marc-Andre Fleury and, for the past two championships and beyond, Matt Murray.

The Penguins have always relied on a team defense. On that philosophy, this season in particular they’ve made one more pivotal strategic adjustment. The team as a unit of 5 collapses very low in the defensive zone and stays very tight together.

After being opened up for 10 goals in Chicago earlier this year and giving up 7 to Tampa Bay last Saturday, the Penguins have really bought into their defensive zone formation with renewed vigour.

These are photos from each of the past three games:

 

They divide the defensive zone into 4 quadrants. As you can see, all five Penguins stay in the same half top to bottom. They also stay in the same half side to side, which means more often than not, the whole five man unit packs itself into the same little quadrant.

Over the past week this has resulted in giving up a total of just 4 combined goals (1,1,2) in three games. The Penguins sit 27th in league shots on goal against for the season which is nothing new(32.7), but during this three game span they’ve only allowed 31 shots or less in each, and the quality of the scoring chances they gave up have been less dangerous.

This defensive concept isn’t by any means. It’s just usually associated with teams that aren’t offensively gifted as a means to clog things up and hope for the best against superior competition. What the Penguins benefit from by using this system isn’t just defensive.

As soon as they gain possession in this formation, now those 5-10 foot passes they love for attacking are already available. It’s instant transition. Plus, it pulls the other team down because they feel like there’s no danger behind them. But every now and again you’ll see one or more of the forwards take off for that deep attempt. It’s like a quarterback throwing for 4-5 yards over and over again, forcing the defense to finally step into those holes, and then going over the top into a now depleted secondary.

The Penguins can and will beat you with long passes and speed, but those holes and opportunities are better created when everyone starts from the very back.

Penguins Physicality Not What You Might Think

On October 6, after a 10-1 drubbing at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan asked for more physicality from his players.

Physical play has been a point of contention for years in Pittsburgh as superstar veterans Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and especially Sidney Crosby have been the victims of some “liberties” dished out by opposing players who have little retribution to fear based on the Penguins roster.

Fans haven’t quite been satisfied with the contributions of protection players such as Tom Sestito, and the addition of Ryan Reaves for the 2017-18 season opens the conversation even wider. Although Reaves has been pretty good so far, the Penguins won two Stanley Cups in a row and counting with those types of players contributing minute bit parts on the journey.

So if that isn’t the kind of toughness the Penguins rely on, what kind of physicality is Sullivan asking for? Substituting the word “physicality” with the words “compete” and “body position” might give you the answer.

The game against Chicago really wasn’t that bad as far as the Penguins creating their own chances and having the puck. The Blackhawks just simply weren’t slowed down at all by any sort of physical contact. I don’t mean hitting. I mean body positioning.

Someone like Carl Hagelin seems lost so far. It’s because he’s not engaging. To create separation from an opponent, you first have to come together. That’s why in every foot race as a kid someone would always jokingly push off the person you’re racing against. It’s why basketball and soccer players post up, leaning into the opponent with their back. It helps you control where your opponent can move, and what your opponent can reach with the hands or stick.

It’s why football quarterbacks want their top receivers in one on one coverage so they can battle for position and control the defender. The quarterback always gets the credit for putting the ball “where only the receiver could get it”, but that magic spot the defender can’t reach is only created by the positioning and desire of the receiver to keep that defender away from that spot.

We always think of using your body and being physical on the defensive side of the puck. This tweet I put out a while ago is a great example of an NHL defenseman doing everything right with physicality, not in terms of hitting but just by pure compete and positioning:

But this kind of physicality is just as important on offense. Watch Partic Hornqvist‘s recent goal against the Florida Panthers:

One notable thing about Conor Sheary is how he reminds me of Crosby. It’s not his hands or his moves. It’s his strength. It’s how he keeps low and fends off anyone trying to get in his way. He craves the feeling of someone on him so he can win the battle and explode away. Crosby is famous for fending off players riding his back, using his body positioning and lower body strength to make even the best checkers look like they need to hit the gym. But if he didn’t engage in the physicality with them, he wouldn’t be able to use his strength to his advantage. What’s the point of being the strongest lower body player in the game if you never engage?

To demonstrate the point, here’s a video shot by John Moore of some Nova Scotian NHLers practicing in Halifax during the off season. James Sheppard, Zack Sill, Brad Marchand, and Crosby are all working on puck protection. Notice how little body checking there is. It’s just brute strength and intelligent body placement. The most important detail in this video is this: notice how not one single battle is won until one of these players pushes off the other and explodes away. Spoiler alert: it’s not the guy without the puck that does this in most cases. It’s the guy WITH the puck.

This is the physicality Mike Sullivan needs on both offense and “defense”.

Kicking Their Way In

Well folks. It’s only Game 1 and already there’s some passion in the fans. Brayden Schenn scored a first period goal in Pittsburgh off his skate to move the St. Louis Blues into a questionable 1-1 tie.

My immediate thought before the review even happened was good goal. I tweeted this:

Other fans weren’t being so care free about it.

This might be the most interesting take of all.

It also sparked a fun conversation about the kicking rule in general.

It never ceases to amaze me the intelligence of the “average” hockey fan, and the sheer number of tweets this play ended up drawing shows hockey fandom is alive and well in Pittsburgh.