Breakdowning: Fire drill on the penalty kill in Nashville

Breakdowning is a semi-regular feature on PITB wherein we take a single play from a game and break it down into its constituent parts to analyse it in detail. It’s also only three letters removed from being “breakdancing,” which is purely coincidental. Or is it? It is.

The Nashville Predators don’t seem like an offensively-gifted hockey team. Built from the net out with an emphasis on defence and one of the lowest payrolls in the league, they simply haven’t sunk a lot of money into big offensive talent. You would think this lack of high-end scoring punch would be especially apparent on the powerplay.

Nope. The Predators have the second best powerplay in the NHL, behind only the Vancouver Canucks. And, given the way the Canuck powerplay has performed recently, the Predators might actually be the best team in the league with the man advantage these days. On Tuesday, they showed exactly why that might be the case, making one of the best penalty kill units on one the best penalty-killing teams look completely foolish.

That, my friends, is some of the finest rotation on the powerplay you will see this season and some of the worst rotation on the penalty kill. This wasn’t the fault of just one player, either. It took a true team effort to look this bad shorthanded.

As we pick up the play, things have already started to go wrong. The Canucks’ four-man “box” resembles a right-angle triangle. While it’s nice to know that the square of the distance between Edler and Kesler is equal to the square of the distance between Edler and Salo added to the square of the distance between Salo and Kesler, it’s not helping them kill the penalty.

What has happened here is that Martin Erat, Ryan Suter, and Shea Weber are in the midst of a particularly neat bit of rotation. Erat rotated down low, Weber rotated out high into the neutral zone, and Suter is skating right in between the two with the puck. As we’ll see, it completely bamboozles three very good defensive players.

For now, Kesler is shadowing Weber in the neutral zone, expecting him to be looking for a one-timer when he comes back over the blue line, while Burrows is watching Suter. Salo has stepped up to put pressure on Erat. See behind Salo? That’s Mike Fisher. That’ll be important in a moment.

Suter passes the puck to Erat and the Predators finish their rotation. Weber comes back in from the neutral zone and Kesler shadows him, leading Kesler directly to Erat with the puck. The best thing for Kesler to do is to get into Weber’s shooting lane while keeping his stick active, preventing Erat from making an easy pass. The puck-carrier is now his responsibility.

The problem is that both Salo and Burrows get it in their head that Erat is their responsibility. Burrows has followed Suter across the blue line, but turns away from him after the pass. Sami Salo is busy giving Erat a world-weary stare. He’s probably thinking that Erat will carry the puck down the boards, at which point he’ll be Salo’s check, but for the moment Salo is just caught in no man’s land.

Because Burrows and Salo only had eyes for Erat, Suter ends up all alone at the top of the faceoff circle and Fisher ends up all alone at the side of the net. Kesler didn’t get his stick in Erat’s passing lane, so the puck goes straight through to Suter. Really, the only two Canucks playing this correctly are Edler and Luongo.

Edler has been fronting Yip in front of the net up until this point. Fronting is a relatively new strategy where the defenceman does not engage in a battle with the opposition forward in front of the net, instead standing in front of that forward. This is done for a couple reasons: it provides less of a screen for the goaltender, gives the defenceman a better chance to block a shot, and also allows the defender to rotate with the rest of the team. If a defenceman engages with a forward in front of the net while killing a penalty, that essentially turns the powerplay into a 4-on-3 situation, which can be quite dangerous.

Since Edler was fronting Yip, he’s able to rotate out to Suter as soon as the pass is made. Normally he wouldn’t have to travel quite so far, but since Burrows gave Suter so much room, he has no choice. In this situation, Edler has to trust that his defence partner, Salo, will cover the back door pass, so Edler skates out directly in Suter’s shooting lane. Unfortunately, because Salo was playing too high (watching Erat) and reacts too late, he’s just not going to get there in time.

Edler actually does well to get out to Suter and pressure him, but with Fisher so open, it doesn’t do much good. With Yip still screening in front, Luongo has to anticipate the shot, leaving a wide open net for Fisher.

What’s the take home on this goal? First, that was a nice piece of rotation by the three players at the blue line; the Canucks should watch tape on that and adapt it for their own powerplay. Second, be aware of where your fellow penalty killers are: if Burrows had noticed Kesler coming across, he could have rotated around to cover Suter. Third, don’t get caught standing still and watching the puck: Salo’s feet barely move throughout this entire play and he completely loses track of the players behind him.

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6 comments

  1. J21
    February 23, 2012

    “Sacré bleu”? Burrows is from Pincourt, not Paris. He’d more likely be saying “Estie de câlisse de tabarnak!”

    Thanks for another excellent breakdown. Unrelatedly, why do so many of the broadcasters pronounce Erat’s name as “Irat”?

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    • Mark Ragnar
      February 23, 2012

      That should be noted in the “Errata”

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  2. DaveM
    February 23, 2012

    This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Salo looking a bit off-the-pace this season, especially in his own zone. And there’s something about his body language out there these days that suggests he may be getting a bit tired with it all, not that I could blame him much after all the turmoil with injuries. I’d guess we may be getting a retirement announcement from Salo this summer.

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  3. Dazza23
    February 23, 2012

    I enjoy looking at these but i think it is mostly one player to fault in this and it is Burrows and I am interested as to why it isn’t’ . Burrows challenges Suter and follows him to the open side of the ice but then notices the overlap of Kesler on Erat and Weber and goes back to challenge Erat. But why? he was reforming the box when he followed Suter but he ended up chasing the puck. Kesler was in position trust him to do his job. He ended up causing two men on Erat and no one on Suter or Weber. If he had of stayed with the man Suter and let Kesler challenge the other two there would not have been the odd situation or the open Suter shot/pass. That said Salo is too high but if Burrows was in position the pass would have been difficult and most likely no occurred .

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    • Daniel Wagner
      February 23, 2012

      It was a case of over-aggression all-around. Kesler probably should have been the one to pick up Suter coming across, leaving Erat and Weber’s shooting lane to Burrows. When he overlapped, he didn’t communicate that to Burrows and he didn’t get his stick in Erat’s passing lane.

      Burrows was definitely mostly to blame for peeling off Suter, but he pretty clearly thought that he was going to need to come back on Erat. Salo’s error was playing far too high.

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  4. Bill Barilko
    February 23, 2012

    Poutant!

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