Between the blue lines: Datsyuk, Kucherov and the Blues’ power play

Each week, Sam Hitchcock looks around the league…follow him @intellighockey on Twitter

“He puts the puck into quiet areas and then fights people off after the fact.”
Hockey broadcaster and retired NHL defenseman Brian Engblom said this about Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk when the Red Wings were playing the Boston Bruins recently. Datsyuk had just split two forwards in the neutral zone and two defensemen in the offensive zone on one rush. It was a smart observation by a very good analyst, but it also brings to the forefront a valuable skill that young players can glean from the Tao of Datsyuk.

As the NHL cracks down on all obstruction and restricts defenders’ ability to impede forwards, attacking skaters have more latitude to take liberties. Like receivers in football and wings in basketball, forwards should utilize the league-wide offensive mandate to their advantage, and that means using leverage on blueliners who possess less recourse to push back. Datsyuk and many Red Wings forwards use stiff arms and combat rearguards when they are guarding the puck and pushing it north. More forwards would be wise to brutalize opposing defensemen while advancing the puck because there is a limit to how much defenders can fight back without drawing a penalty. As long as the rules favor offense, forwards should bend them as much as possible to their benefit.

The Blues work a triangle up high on the power play.
The St. Louis Blues have the best power play in the NHL right now. They have two dynamic, skilled units that possess a nice balance of right/left shooting and playmaking. An interesting component of the Blues’ man advantage is that they like to work the puck in a triangle up high. The player on the half wall passes to the forward stationed at the high slot, who passes to the skater at the point. These three players can whip the puck around in a triangle pattern, and when one of them likes the room and time in front of him, he can attack via passing or shooting. Of course, the high triangle is not immutable; it is just a set that gets the players and puck moving. Often, what makes it so effective is not the initial action on higher ice, but what it unlocks below the circles and on the weak side.

The Islanders and Predators are winning a lot of close games.
This week, ESPN Insider Rob Vollman wrote a compelling article on the Anaheim Ducks’ NHL-leading one-goal wins and how their incredibly clutch play could be fleeting. Vollman explains that winning close games is unpredictable, and that the Ducks’ puck luck should correct itself over the second half of the season. Vollman also makes the point that two- and three-goal victories are a better predictor of future success. Unfortunately for the Ducks, they only have six wins by two or three goals.

Using this barometer, it is also interesting to look at the two teams below the Ducks in one-goal wins: the Nashville Predators and the New York Islanders. Nashville has two 2-goal wins, but seven 3-goal wins, and the Islanders have four 2-goal wins and five 3-goal wins. Nine is a pretty modest amount when compared to the two- and three-goal win tallies of the Canadiens (17), Lightning (15), Rangers (14), Penguins (14), Blackhawks (14), and Blues (14). Oddly, the Maple Leafs, who just fired their coach, have a solid 15. The Islanders and Predators are excellent possession teams, but it would be encouraging if they started winning games more decisively.

Nikita Kucherov’s no-look pass
Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson are two players who easily have surpassed preseason expectations. So it is fitting that on the man advantage the two are incredibly effective playing off each other. In consecutive games against Ottawa and Montreal, Kucherov made a gorgeous cross-ice, no-look pass to Johnson on the power play, both times resulting in goals. During the power play, the two players position themselves along the half wall on opposite sides, and each has the passing acumen and vision to know when the seam opens up. Tampa Bay has balance throughout its lineup, and Kucherov and Johnson have consistently provided offense at even strength and on the power play.

Detroit’s awful PDO is driven by brutal shooting percentage.
The Red Wings have speed, depth, and excellent decision-making, which allow them to consistently navigate the neutral zone and penetrate the middle. Predictably, the Red Wings’ possession metrics are superb. People can give plenty of plaudits for the patience and instruction preached by the coaching staff; the Red Wings always look prepared for how they want to attack and how they want to defend. But it should not be overlooked that Detroit has experienced much better health this season and that has made a world of difference.

Yet, there is still room for improvement, or at least better puck luck. The Red Wings are the in the bottom half of the league in PDO, and a big reason for this is that their even-strength shooting percentage sits at 7.15, good for 26th in the NHL. The Red Wings are not the New Jersey Devils or Carolina Hurricanes, whose bad shooting percentages are the result of less skilled players. Instead, Detroit has a large collection of talent and scorers, despite heavy reliance on left-handed shooters. The shooting percentage should improve. And once it does, Detroit should challenge for the Atlantic Division title.

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