Playing with fire on the PK

Back by popular demand, I'm busting out the MS Paint!  This time let's take a look at the Caps' weakest unit, the PK.  In order to do this I'm going to demonstrate how the Caps approach their PK, demonstrate the flaws, and compare the approach to the San Jose Sharks' PK unit. Why the Sharks?  Because they are deep with scoring threats, including some serious elite talent at the top, capable of rolling out three lines that can hurt you, and they have a solid checking fourth line that gives them huge contributions on the PK.  In other words, they are built almost exactly like the Caps.  Oh, and they are the top PK unit in the league.

Before we get to the video let me outline what I see as the keys to a successful PK, keep these in mind as you watch the following videos.  The three most important things to a successful PK are skating, hockey sense, and winning battles.  If I was going to add a fourth I'd say clearing the zone whenever you get the puck cleanly on your stick, but it seems obvious at the NHL level.  It's basically a rule on the PK that anytime the PP team loses control of the puck you immediately attack, but watch for the difference in how the two teams treat players with clear control.  This analysis focuses pretty heavily on the forwards because they are the guys that make a PK run.  The D have less ice to cover and still have their basic same responsibilities (net and corners) though the way they cover and react is most certainly different.  

Let's take a look at the Sharks PK first.  As always, remember to consult the video for context on all screen caps.  Unfortunately, like an idiot I picked the Sharks PK against the St. Louis Blues, the worst PP in the league.  I'll keep my eyes open and update this post to demonstrate that a) the Sharks use the same style against more potent PPs and b) it works against more potent PPs.  For now I'm just asking you to look at the style and mechanics of how they attack a PP, and take my word that it's representative of how they do the job.  The Lightning are only 19th, so not exactly gang-busters.  The difference is 6% (but that's a 50% increase for STL), which is about a goal every 4-6 games depending on opportunities.  Here's the video:

San Jose gets the best start a PK can get: they win the face off and clear the puck to the other end.  As St. Louis brings the puck up ice, notice where San Jose first challenges the puck carrier.


Manny Malhotra (27) is in the St. Louis zone forcing them to make a decision.  The puck carrier needs to pick a side of the ice to attack, and either needs to slow down or move the puck.  This prevents St. Louis from attacking the San Jose zone with a full head of steam.  St. Louis tries to skate to one side of the ice, and take advantage of the open side by passing back through the pressure.  


The puck gets tipped and Rob Blake (4) immediately steps up hard and pressures the recipient, T.J. Oshie.  Blake battles to knock the puck back down the ice (to the far blueline) and forces St. Louis to regroup.  Scotty Nichol (21) pressures Oshie again and forces Oshie to further pass the puck back into his own end.  Compounding the problem, Oshie makes a bad pass and the puck ends up in St. Louis' corner.  Nichol applies a light forecheck allowing Malhotra to change in favor of Marleau (12).  Nichol heads back up ice and it looks like St. Louis has the whole bottom half of the screen to move the puck up ice.


Marleau skates hard across the ice and pressures the St. Louis puck carrier right at the redline forcing a dump in.  The Blues win the puck in the corner and move it to a wide open point.


Nichol was in the corner battling for the puck but flies up the boards and finishes the Blues point man, Eric Johnson.  Johnson doesn't get time to control the puck, move it cleanly, or get a shot on goal.  One third through the PK St. Louis hasn't had the time or space to set up their PK yet. St. Louis is spending all their energy simply trying to gain/maintain puck possession.  Look at how much pressure San Jose applies at every step.


All four San Jose defenders are on the same side of the ice, down low, around the face off circle.  In that small area they outnumber St. Louis, and no Blues player has a ton of offensive space to work with. The Blues chase the puck down and continue to try to work it to a man with space.  It eventually finds Eric Johnson, again.


Again, Nichol starts in the heart of the slot and skates right out to Johnson.  He's assertive and challenging, but under control.  He gets right up in Johnson's personal space and forces a clear.  After :45 seconds on the kill, he goes for a change and Joe Pavelski (8) takes the ice.

Now, contrary to the first time St. Louis tried to bring the puck up ice, Marleau hangs around center ice and lets St. Louis gain a head of steam. They gain the zone relatively easily.  As bad as the St. Louis PP is, they still have a lot of skill, and can take advantage of open space when given the opportunity.  This allows St. Louis to get into their PP formation with controlled puck possession for the first time in the PP, when it's halfway over.  St. Louis works the puck to an open shot, but the shot goes wide and wraps up the boards to the point at the bottom of the screen.


Marleau was right in between the hashmarks when the shot was released, and gets to the puck near the point at the same time as the point man.  Marleau wins the battle and clears the puck.  With a little help the Sharks get the puck back down to the Blues zone.  Marleau goes for a change and Joe Thornton (19) takes the ice for the homestretch on the kill.  The Sharks never get pressure up ice because the puck only clears to the St. Louis blueline.  You can't charge the Blues D too hard at that point because you risk being out of control and getting beat by one pass, leaving four Blues behind you against 2 D and a changing F.  The passive approach allows the Blues to gain the zone relatively easily again. Andy McDonald gets the puck deep and smartly beats Doug Murray, a much bigger and stronger man, in the corner to gain possession. The Sharks keep the pressure on and never give a puck carrier space down low.  There is always a Shark D in the hip pocket of the Blues puck carrier.  St. Louis doesn't help their cause with sloppy passing, but San Jose is not going to let the Blues have any open space down low.  The Blues move the puck to the open point man and Pavelski immediately commits out to him, blocks the shot, and goes down the ice for the best scoring chance of the entire PP.  Joe Thornton helps him out and applies pressure in the offensive zone, and that eats the rest of the time on the PIM.   

Tale of the tape: 

PKers:  Malhotra, Nichol, Marleau, Pavelski, Thornton

St. Louis time in the Sharks' zone:  53 seconds 

0 chances against, 1 scoring chance for

Now let's watch the Caps successful PK against Tampa Bay the other night.  Compare the aggression level of San Jose against the Caps. Compare the skating, and the decisive decision making.  Compare the (lack of) offensive threat the Caps pose.

Yes, what a freaking sweet goal.  It was a turning point in the game, but it almost didn't happen.  Now, on to the PK.  Steckel does his thing and gets the PK off to a good start with a faceoff win.  Poti does his best Tom Poti impression and tries to blow the clear.  A friendly bounce allows the forwards to get the puck down the ice and our PK is off to a great start.  Steckel does good and applies pressure to the TBL puck carrier as he skates back to his end of the ice.  But TBL moves the puck ahead and look what happens.


The Caps D gives up the redline and the blueline.  They don't even attempt to impede or slow down the Bolts.  Part of this is because they are concerned about getting burned wide with both forwards up ice.  But they need to read that play better and be closer on the bolts when they are coming up ice.  I think I heard somewhere that one of those D is known as being a good skater, that only makes it worse.  They needed to take more ice when Laich and Steckel got the puck down to the offensive zone corner.  Those two guys at the redline are Steve Downie and Ryan Malone.  Which one of those guys scares you from farther than ten feet from the net (and I'm talking about with the puck)?  Exactly.  

Downie takes the offensive zone, gives the puck to Malone, and Malone promptly lobs a rainbow to Varlamov.  So far so good.  Dave Steckel wins another faceoff, but the Caps lose the ensuing battle and the Bolts keep the puck in the zone.  The puck ends up right on Poti's stick again, and after being thwarted by his previous attempt at sabotage, he maintains determination and takes a different tact.  He dumps the puck immediately to the empty corner.  Even so, the Caps are in fine position to go win that puck and get a clear.


The two closest men to that puck are Caps, though Steckel is turned around the wrong way.  Shamo gets out-muscled for position by Malone, and Malone manages to tip the puck down to the corner.  Shamo atones and buries Downie, forcing a bad pass, and Steckel picks up the loose puck and makes a real solid pass to the open D in the slot.  Passing to the slot is a no-no in hockey, but it's like throwing off your back foot in football.  If you're going to be any good at the highest level you have to be able to do it on occasion.  The open man was in the slot, and Steckel would have had a tough play to make clearing up the boards.  Good look and good pass.  His biggest mistake was passing it to number 3.  Poti lobs it down the ice and everyone goes for a change.  So far so good.  No threats against.

After the change BMo and Flash take the ice for the forwards.  They promptly make no attempt at doing anything remotely like challenging Marty St. Louis.


This lets St. Louis and Stamkos pick up speed and attack the Caps with control.  St. Louis could have skated the puck into the zone if he wanted to, but he hits Stamkos with a perfect pass.  Stamkos takes the zone and pulls up at the top of the faceoff circle with no pressure.


 Stamkos passes back and forth with St. Louis and then Flash comes and pressures Stamkos along the boards.


Flash loses the battle to Stamkos and can't take the puck away.  Lost battles happen, but how does a team react to them?  Not only does Flash lose the physical battle to Stamkos, but Schultz is right on the scene and Lecavalier is near the top of the circles but somehow comes up with the puck.  The puck goes to St. Louis at the point, and Flash makes his move.  


He gets to within stick length of St. Louis, stops, and waives his stick at him.  Contrast that with how Nichol treated Eric Johnson on the point.  If Flash isn't winning battles, and isn't using his abundance of skill to attack other skill players, what's he doing?  Two more passes back and forth between Stamkos and St. Louis and BMo and Flash just waive.  You aren't taking the puck from such a skilled guy like that, and you aren't forcing a decision.  Stamkos passes to Lecavalier at the top of the far circle, and this time Erskine doesn't challenge.  Normally you'd say "good, Erskine is slower than plate tectonics and Lecavalier would abuse him."  Normally you'd be right.  But this is a PK, and this was a brief moment of equalization that would allow Erskine to be aggressive.


The red X represents where Flash waived his stick at Stamkos before the cross ice pass.  It's basically irrelevant.  The man circled in blue is useless.  Essentially it's a four on four for a brief time.  If anything that guy is support for Lecavalier, but that moves the puck further from the net, not a bad thing.  Erskine pulls off and allows that man to get into the play.  The red line by BMo represents where his stick should be.  He's not guarding anything.  If he flips his stick to the other side he takes away the pass to St. Louis.  But he's just guarding Flash's lonesome reminder. Lecavalier takes time and sets the PP back up.  Inexcusably the Caps leave the most dangerous man on the ice all alone in a prime scoring area.


Somehow St. Louis is unguarded at the hash marks.  Lecavalier hits him with a pass and thankfully St. Louis doesn't get it cleanly; but make no mistake, that's a scoring chance.  Now look at the sticks.  Terrible.  The only stick in the right place is BMo's and he's the most irrelevant defender in the play.  He's coming back from guarding the point and not in much position to do anything.  Erskine's stick is threatening to deflect a shot on net, that's about it.  If he swivels it 90 degrees to his right he can take away the pass to St. Louis.  Flash and Schultz are guarding nobody.  They are blocking a back door pass that isn't a threat.  Flash is in perfect position to take away St. Louis' stick, but doesn't.  Schultz could take Downie's stick away and be right on him for a rebound, but he doesn't.  Not really sure what any of them are thinking.

St. Louis can most definitely score from there off that pass.  Don't pay no never mind to what Locker says right after the clear.  That was a chance from the heart of the zone.  The Caps get the puck down the ice and get a change.   No harm, no foul, right?  Steckel comes back out with Clark.  A couple bad TBL passes, a near too-many-men on the ice, and the PK is rolling again.  St. Louis gains the zone and Schultz immediately steps up to him and Clark commits to him on the backcheck so that St. Louis can't pull up.  St. Louis wraps the puck around the boards.  Erskine can't make the play, but watch Steckel.  He takes two half-hearted strides and coasts to the puck.  If he reads that and commits from the second St. Louis wraps it around he makes that a battle and potentially wins the clear.  He looks like he's still a little gassed from his previous PK shift.   (Now recall Marleau tracking down that wide shot and forcing the puck out of the zone.)Tblbadreaddumpin_medium

Steckel gets there a step late and TBL already has possession.  Look how slowly Steckel is moving.  He barely moves his feet and he's basically floating.  This let's TBL take up space and open up the bomb from the point.  Foster gets his shot off, gets all of it, and gets it on net. Further, there is a rebound and a guy right there for it.  Luckily the rebound kicked out past the Bolt crashing the net and the Caps took possession.  Again, that is a quality scoring chance.  We've all seen that goal go in before.  The Caps take the puck, and for good measure botch another clear.  There's only six seconds left.  A tired Steckel and Chris Clark are going to be heroes and rush the puck down the ice and score.  Steckel needs to ice that and get that change, instead he puts the puck in Clark's skates.  Instead of stopping and making sure he gets the puck and clears it, Clark tries to make a finesse move and kick the puck to his stick.  He couldn't have made that move in 06-07.  TBL keeps the puck in and gets two more chances.  Lecavalier blasts two shots wide and then the Caps get a clear.  The talent takes the ice, Sasha picks off the puck in the neutral zone, and AO (always so dangerous when a teammate carries the puck in) buries it.  Game changing moment.  All's well that ends well, right?  The Caps played with fire, TBL easily could have had the lead.  I guess the Sabers repaid the favor last night. 

When you let a skilled player have time and space in the faceoff circle the Trent Hunter goal happens.  Someone on San Jose would have been right on Hunter.  They would not fall back and leave him all alone right there.

When you let a team skate through the middle with speed and don't challenge at the blueline you get the Marian Gaborik goal.  (The second one.)  The Rags came from all the way in their own end.  San Jose would have been in MDZ's face much earlier.  

Tale of the tape:

2 quality chances against, no quality chances for

PKers:  Steckel, Laich; BMo, Flash; Steckel, Clark

TBL time in offensive zone:  1:14 and about a quarter of the time out of the zone was a result of unforced errors by TBL,

There is no reason the Caps can't kill like the Sharks.  The Caps have a fourth line of guys that can skate and PK.  They have plenty of offensively dangerous players that can kill, but in the kill we watched they didn't play them aggressively and use their skating to their advantage. I'm not saying we need to match Marleau and Thorton by putting AO and Backstrom on the kill.  But I do think it would be a great idea to put Backstrom and Semin out for the last 30-35.  That's when Thorton went on the ice.  You catch the second unit tired (and if the opposing coach is so stupid as to leave his top unit players on the point for the full 2, well then you have sitting ducks) and have a chance at an shorthanded goal. You also get reinforcements out of the box (and if the guy is worthless you get a change and AO joining the play late).  

I should also note that lately (maybe inconsistently) BB has been using Semin and Backstrom on the PK more.  You do see them occasionally get more aggressive on the PK, but it's safe to say that they are a passive PK.  I think the video above is representative, though obviously anecdotal.  Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't see any reason the Caps can't be consistently aggressive and put teams on their heels with their speed and skill.  The Caps are built remarkably similarly to the Sharks (and the 'Hawks, who are also a top 5 PK unit, use their skill players on the PK, and are very aggressive).  I think most of us have also realized that the teams that are most aggressive against our PP are the most successful ones.  It takes a lot of good skating and talent to do it, but isn't that what we're supposed to be flush with?

And finally, for those of you that are still with me, a huge glove tap to renhoak for providing the video.  If it weren't for him it would have taken me much longer to do this, and it would have been much worse video quality.  I couldn't have done it this well without him.  If we just won a road game I'd hip bump him at center ice.

If this FanPost is written by someone other than one of the blog's editors, the opinions expressed in it do not necessarily reflect those of this blog or SB Nation.

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