Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Nervous Musings

How We Got Here, and How We Beat the Habs Rope-A-Dope Defense
A month ago, anxiously awaiting the puck to drop on the NHL postseason, I harped on two things to anyone that would even feign a lent ear. One, as a Penguins fan an eventual match-up with the New Jersey Devils would be our undoing. More than anyone else, they scared me. It was an individual match-up thing. They happened to play a system that corresponded almost perfectly with the Penguins. Remember when you were playing Nintendo Tecmo Bowl and your buddy on defense picked the exact right play call? The defense would tear through the O-line like it was wet tissue paper, slaughter any blocking back and decimate your QB. It was like that. Only uglier. In their six meetings this season the Penguins weren’t just swept by the division-rival Devils, New Jersey didn’t even yield an OT loss consolation point. It was a shellacking.

And two, I said any team facing Pittsburgh should pull the tapes from those Devils games. If they have the guys to play the system, even if for only one series, they had the Penguins number. I said this over and over, mostly just hoping to jinx it so that no team would actually follow through on it.

In our email Pick ‘em Pool, no one was surprised that everyone picked the Washington Capitals to advance past the Montreal Canadiens. I had the sweep, Caps in four. In fact, I though the entire Eastern Conference would go chalk. There just seemed to be a talent gap between the top 4 and bottom 4 playoff teams. By the time the Habs pushed the President Trophy winning Capitals to a decisive Game 7, the East, already openly acknowledged as the Nation League of hockey, had imploded.

Going into the first round against the Devils, the Flyers did their best to set an example for Earth Day by putting to practice the “re-use” policy.  Philly plucked Brian Boucher off the used goalie trash heap, throwing him, once again, between the pipes. Thus continuing a trend in the Flyers crease that only parallels behind Spinal Taps drum set.

And yet, while I was doing my best Chicken Little impersonation at even the slightest mention of the Devils, every Flyers fan I talked to liked the match-up. They had reason, Philly owned the New Jersey in their six division games. And Boucher turned in a baffling brilliant series, outplaying Martin Broduer, and dispatching the Devils in five games.

The third seeded Buffalo Sabres, backstopped by the man who led US to its Silver medalin Vancouver, Ryan Miller faced the woefully offensive challenged Boston Bruins. It had all the makings for a painless and forgettable first round series. I had the Bruins pegged for single digits in total goals. But the Sabres unraveled in front of Miller before the first puck hit the ice, and another top seed was left shaking hands at center ice, wondering just what went wrong.

By the time the Canadiens completed the comeback from being down three games to one, stealing Game 7 in DC, I joined my fellow Penguins brethren in treating the evening like a spontaneous holiday. I threw around the phrase “San Jose East”. I dedicated The Faints “I Disappear” to Alexander Semin, Mike Green, and Alex Ovechkin. It was a free-for-all. I tweeted that I was going to do a “#Caps” search and spend the next three weeks reading everything from that night. The first round could not have possibly gone better. Down Goes Brown summed it up perfectly: The Penguins have to feel like a running back who breaks through a tough tackles, looks up, and sees all open field.

I exuded confidence going into the second round match-up against the eighth seed Habs. I chalked up their upset of the Capitals to two things. First, Jaroslav Halak playing completely out of his mind. And second, the much maligned build of the Washington roster. The go-to instant analysis was that the high flying Caps were built for the regular season, putting the puck in the net with a reckless abandon while playing a different team every other night. But when a team had time to prepare and make the necessary adjustments, the one-dimensional Caps were sunk. I bought in, mostly because as a Pittsburgh fan I was basking in the DC failure. I thought the Habs had to be tired after the long series. I though Halak might steal a game or two. I did not think Montreal could make it happen again. I picked the Pens in six.

Game one went just about as well as I could have hoped. The Penguins got to the net, hindered Halak, and put up three first period goals. By early in the third period they had chased Halak, who allowed 5 goals on 20 shots. They won handily 6-3. Even with Jordan Staal needing emergency surgery to repair a torn tendon in his foot, my confidence grew. Murmurs out of Montreal had Carey Price getting a look to start game two.

Game two started off the same. Halak got the call to return to the crease only minutes before the game. Max Talbot scored an early goal filling in for Staal as the third line center, and all the sudden that “everyone’s contributing” feeling sprang forth. Even when the Habs tied it back up at 1-1, things felt right. Over a stretch from the second period to the third the Penguins outshot the Candiens 30-5. It felt like that overwhelming offensive attack that briefly made an appearance in Pittsburgh coming back from the Olympic break. But as the game bled on without the Penguins scoring, it became a different type of game. The type of game that you dominate for 95% of the time, but fail to put it away, and lose it all on one bad break. Montreal scored on one of only three shots they had in the second period. Camalleri tacked on a third goal in the final frame, and Craig Adams five-minute boarding penalty sealed the game.

The Penguins had nearly doubled the Habs in shots, 39-21. They overwhelming controlled the puck. But Halak and the Canadiens withstood the attack, made good on their scarce opportunities, and the series was tied at a game apiece.

Take that formula and repeat it for games 3, 4, 5, and 6. Pittsburgh outshots Montreal, but the games were low-scoring affairs. The Pens took Game 3 2-0, but Montreal answered in Game 4. Again the Penguins controlled the puck and peppered Halak to no avail. Montreal took control in the third period, scoring twice for the 3-2 come-for-behind victory. The Penguins squeaked out a win back at home in Game 5, 2-1. Montreal forced a Game 7 with a 4-2 Game 6 victory in front of a ruckus Bell Centre crowd. Once again, after stifling one of the league’s most dominant teams, the Canadiens looked to pull off a historical upset.

And so there I sat in silence, after a 12-hour work day, having been up for nearly 24 hours, and after watching the Penguins being forced to the brink of elimination by an eighth seed, thinking to myself, “Just how exactly in the hell is this happening?”

The easiest answer is the same conclusion that we were too quick to arrive at after the Caps had their number called: Jaroslav Halak. The Penguins were putting it on net, and he was keeping it out. There was undeniably truth in that conclusion, but, like most easy answers, there was more to the story.While the Habs didn’t have the puck on the blade of their sticks, they had overwhelmingly controlled where the Penguins played the puck. Which all started with the neutral zone  trap.

Without pulling out the whiteboard, slipping on my tweed jacket, and going too far into Hockey 101, the Habs have eliminated the Penguins rush attack by bringing a forward back to play with the defense in the Montreal side of the neutral zone. By always having an extra skater back, odd-man rushes, which often yield high scoring shots between the circles, are eliminated.

The age old response to the trap is the even more boring “dump and chase”. Gain the blue-line, throw the puck into a corner, beat the defenders to the puck and attempt to establish possession. All of this is pedestrian, a rehashing of any game played against the New Jersey Devils or Minnesota Wild in the last 15 years. I hate the trap. Like reality television, we all know it’s bad for us. I know it. You know it. Everyone knows it. But it works, and so we’ll probably never get rid of it. But what Montreal is doing goes beyond the trap.

Even after the Penguins have established puck possession in the offensive zone, the Canadiens have dictated where the puck has been by absolutely shutting down areas of the attack zone, largely behind the net, along the low sideboards, and between the circles. In doing so, they have jammed a cog in the Penguins cycle, constantly making the only option the escape valve defender along the blue-line. But with the puck on the Penguins defenders stick, they back off into a “rope-a-dope” defense, daring the Penguins to pepper Halak with shots from 45+ feet.

Against just about any other goaltender Pittsburgh would be thrilled to have noted blue-line scoring threat Sergei Gonchar racking up 12 shots in the series. He’s made a career putting the puck in the net from long distance. But not against Halak. Not when Halak can see the puck and the Penguins have been unable to get the need deflections in front of the net.

Of the Penguins 37 shots in Game 6, only eight came from between the circles. Three came from the sideboards, and a whopping 25 came from beyond the circles and along the blue-line. Of the 25 long distance shots, only three were deflected on goal. Not surprisingly, none of those clean shots from long distance amounted to any scoring. All three of the Penguins goals came from those scarce opportunities between the circles.

Shots abound, the Penguins are playing into the same hockey game that the Canadiens used to send the Capitals to their early graves. DC outshot Montreal 134-66 in the seven game series. Their lowest total was 36. When the Canadiens were on their game, it was useless. In the three Capitals victories they scored 17 goals. In their four losses, only five goals.

Seemingly the answer for Pittsburgh goes against every hockey platitude ever uttered. “Every shot is a good shot.” “You missed 100% of the shots you never take.” Largely these are statements ring true. I’ve seen countless big goals come off pedestrian shots that found the back of the net from unlikely stickblades. I’ve seen Darius Kasparaitis seal a series with an OT goal. However, against Halak, pedestrian shots will not cut it. Not with the way he is playing, they are as good as turnovers - squandered opportunities. Everything thrown his way from 50 feet he is going to stop. So the answer: turn down shots.

In the Penguins three victories against Montreal they have amounted 24, 25, and 25 shots. In their 3 losses, they have shot 39, 35, and 37. But don’t let the high totals fool you, they are trash shots. Pucks thrown on the net just hoping something good might happen. Something you can except from the third or fourth lines. Something the Penguins top two scoring lines can no longer accept.

In the past Sidney Crosby has been accused of passing too much, overplaying the puck, getting too cute with the playmaking. Now? Now is the time to do all of the above. Attempt cross passes dissecting the Habs defense, force them. Attempt slap shot passes to the side of the net. Because those perimeter shots won’t cut it. They Habs are giving them to the Pens because they aren’t afraid of them. Take less shots, but take better shots.

In what may be the Penguins last gave ever skated on Civic Arena ice, they are just going to have to ignore that guy. Yeah, “that one”. The one that choses random moments of the game to stand up and drunkenly bellow “Shoot the puck”.

We don’t need more shots, we need better shots, more goals.


TheStarterWife said...

Nicely done. You're right about the modified trap working well against the Pens, which is frustrating beyond belief.

That said, I'm trying to be confident going into tonight's game. We've been beaten by a lot of our mistakes, so hopefully we play a perfect game.

Justin said...

I'm trying to stay confident as well. In fact, I'm positive we can beat them, like you said, we just need to play the right game.

Crosby isn't playing poorly, we just aren't playing the puck enough in his areas.

I'd love to see us, when the puck is forced back to the blue-line, swing it over to the other side's low boards and move the Habs defenders a lot more from one side to the other. Shuffling them should open the middle.

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