Between the bluelines – Blackhawks’ possession skill and Eastern goaltending

Each week, Sam Hitchcock looks around the NHL for unique stories, trends and numbers. Follow him @intellighockey and at his website

More than one way to succeed on the power play

Success on the power play generally is achieved through puck movement, support, and coherent motion. After gaining the zone, a good power play unit sets up and surveys the point, the area in the slot, and the point of attack along the goal line. But some teams are more prone to attack off the rush, which means possibly punting on extended zone time. Chicago’s game against St. Louis Sunday afternoon was a fascinating example of why players are wary of attacking off the rush, but it also exemplified how it can be a quick-strike triumph.

If a team can gain a clean entry on the man advantage, there can be three to four players entering the offensive zone with a lot of momentum. There is a concern among some teams that, if they shoot too aggressively off the rush on the power play, the puck will swing around the boards and lead to a quick counterattack for the penalty kill.

On Sunday, Patrick Sharp received the puck with an open lane to fire away. Sharp is a distinguished sharpshooter, but he chose a carefully placed short-side shot with a little less mustard. He played it safe. Fast forward to the third period, with the game 2-2 and the second unit out. Brad Richards led the rush as the primary puck-handler. He passed to Bryan Bickell, who was stationed just outside the blue line. Bickell received the pass and curled toward the middle to pass to a streaking Brandon Saad. Saad gained the zone on the entry, identified Marian Hossa driving the middle and threaded a pocket pass to him for the game-winning goal.

The Blackhawks ran another variation of this Hook and Ladder against Arizona on Monday. David Runblad, as “quarterback,” delivered the stretch pass to the far blue line. Bryan Bickell was the recipient of the pass, and he delivered a nice lateral to a charging Andrew Shaw, who unleashed a nice near post shot on the attempt off the rush. After two uninspired power plays and a minute and 50 seconds of lackluster play, Chicago’s second unit tried once again to attack off the rush, and Saad was able to find Bickell, who almost scored from the middle of the ice.

Penalty kills are more aggressive than ever, so blasting away carries risk if the shot misses the net. But playing too conservatively can diminish a power play’s efficacy.

The Boston Bruins are not afraid to attack off rush

The Boston Bruins’ power play is far from perfect. They could use a better finisher on the first unit. On the second unit, Zdeno Chara’s presence down low eliminates the threat of a successful jam play along the goal line or above the crease. Reilly Smith has too prominent a role on the first unit. Without question, the Bruins have issues.

But the Bruins will fire away off the rush when the penalty kill gives them a lane, and they have scored goals and procured A-plus scoring chances by doing so. Occam’s razor says the simplest answer is often correct, and credit the Bruins for embracing that philosophy. Boston is perfectly content letting Patrice Bergeron shoot from the top of the circle, which makes a lot of sense. Additionally, for struggling power plays, sometimes slowing the game down only benefits the opponent. Pittsburgh comes to mind as a team that should let Evgeni Malkin blast away from the top of the circle if the avenue is there.

A Subtle Way Chicago Keeps Possession: Part I

How a defenseman confronts a rush attempt is often perceived in simplified terms. Either retreat and let the opposing forward gain entry to the offensive zone, or challenge the forward, trying to disrupt the zone entry. But Chicago’s top four are excellent at retreating while challenging. From a positional standpoint, the Blackhawks’ defensemen are moving backward and are in a half-pivot; they are turned sideways when they extend their stick with one hand. From there, they try to jab at the puck or sweep their stick across to try to disrupt possession and cause a turnover around the blue line, halting the enemy transition. More often than not, this is a successful maneuver. Like most things in hockey, how a unit executes is more complicated than can be described in simple black and white.

A Subtle Way Chicago Keeps Possession: Part II

Niklas Hjalmarsson not only is a master at poke-checking, but also is the best on the Blackhawks at making the little passes below the goal line to start the transition. Sometimes, that comes in the form of something that looks like an outdoor shuffleboard sweep. Hjalmarsson will use one hand to guide the puck out of danger and toward the area, or teammate, he wants to receive the puck. His ability to consistently move the puck out of danger below the circles is a big reason why Chicago has so many opportunities on the rush and forecheck.

Cause for concern with Tampa Bay and New York?

Minnesota’s goaltending is the glaring flaw that has kept the team from surging up the standings. Despite the team’s allowing the fewest shots per game in the NHL, an abnormal amount of goals had been going in because Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom were atrocious this season. But with Devan Dubnyk now manning the goal posts, the Wild goaltending to be temporarily solved.

So which contending teams should be worried about their goaltending capsizing their aspirations? Both Tampa Bay and New York jump out. When looking at all starting goaltenders’ save percentages, nearly every contender has a starting goalie who has a save percentage of .915 or higher. But the Lightning’s Ben Bishop’s save percentage is .912, and the Islanders’ Jaroslav Halak’s save percentage is .911. These percentages are particularly worrisome because neither team is allowing that many shots per contest, and both teams do a good job at limiting high-percentage shots. New York is second in shots against per game and leads the NHL in Fenwick close. The Bolts are fourth in shots against, second in Corsi Against per 60 minutes at 5 on 5, and second in Corsi for percentage at 5v5.

Behind Halak is Chad Johnson, who has an atrocious .873 save percentage. And backing up Bishop is Andrei Vasilevskiy. On Monday, the Lightning traded Evgeni Nabokov to San Jose so he could retire a Shark. Therefore, Vasilevskiy, a very highly touted prospect, is the guy if something happens to Bishop. He is considered to be a surefire starter down the road, but he only has seven games of NHL experience at the moment. As goaltender guru Steve Valiquette has voiced, save percentage has visible flaws. But even flawed things can be useful.

Tampa Bay and New York have serious Cup aspirations, and there are real concerns about whether Bishop or Halak would be outplayed in a playoff series to an extent that could tip the balance unfavorably for either franchise. The margin for error in the postseason is razor thin, and having a goaltender who can make the saves when they count is paramount.

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