The Vancouver Canucks won their first two games, but still have several areas to work on — one of which is the penalty kill.
Against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Vancouver Canucks used eight different penalty-killing units. That included six different forward pairings with varying defensemen. In order to be successful, they will need to find consistency soon.
The biggest problem is finding units that work well together. Special-team units are called “units” instead of “lines” for a reason — they need to work together at all times, and any mistake can cost a goal against.
Against Carolina, the Canucks’ units worked with varying success. I tried to outline that on Twitter, but decided to give further explanation here.
The Simple Box
There are different ways to set up a power play and different ways to defend each strategy. However, a simple box seems proven as the best PK strategy against both overload and umbrella power-play tactics. In the image above, the first unit of Brandon Sutter, Jannik Hansen, Erik Gudbranson and Luca Sbisa executed it perfectly.
On first sight, it may look like the exact opposite. Gudbranson is attacking the puck carrier and Hansen is covering a passing lane, but Sbisa and Sutter seem to be standing around, not doing anything. Well, that’s often the best way to defend a power play.
In the example above, the puck carrier has essentially just two options: he can either play a pass up the boards or back to the man behind the net. He opted for the latter option, since Hansen had the boards covered. As that happened, both Gudbranson and Sbisa collapsed in front of the net and Gudbranson blocked the following pass.
All you really need for a successful penalty kill is a box that moves as a unit, as well as players that understand the concept of angling. The players in the box get aggressive once the puck gets into a dangerous area, but sit back otherwise. All they need to do is close lanes and funnel the puck carrier into the area they want him in.
The Failed Box (a.k.a. Diamond?)
In the sequence above, all four players were constantly chasing the puck. Instead of funnelling the puck carrier into the area they want them in, they constantly had to adjust to where the puck went and how they needed to react.
That is almost never a result of a perfectly executed power play, but simply a terrible penalty kill.
We don’t know what strategy the coaches wanted this unit to play, but watching the whole sequence, it looked like they were going for the simple box as well — it just didn’t work out.
A common misconception is that the so-called diamond setup is the reason for sequences like above. It kind of is, but then it isn’t, and also shouldn’t be.
The diamond is a concept that was made to defend the umbrella power-play setup — it just doesn’t work very well. One player is meant to cover the point man, two are on the sides covering players at the high circles, and the remaining player covers the front of the net. The main problems with this set-up are that only one player is covering the front of the net, often against two attackers, and it quickly sucks penalty killers out of position.
For that reason, most teams have returned to the classical box, with minor tweaks here and there that make it more aggressive and even attack the point man — making it “kind of a diamond”. However, for whatever reason, we often see more of a 2-1-1 setup — whether it is planned or by accident — and that is what the Canucks’ PK often looks like.
There are teams that purposely play a 2-1-1 penalty kill, but the advantages of that setup are little to none. In a 2-1-1, we have two D-men covering the front of the net, one player attacking the point man, and one player hovering in between, covering cross-ice passing lanes. The biggest flaw is that it leaves players open at both circles, as seen in the image above, which is why it usually isn’t exactly successful.
From the look of it, the Canucks were going for a box with each of their units, which is likely the best way to go; it just didn’t work out for every one.
The Goal Against
Not surprisingly, the Canucks also surrendered a power-play goal against, with Sbisa, Gudbranson, Horvat and Alex Burrows out on the ice.
The image above isn’t entirely fair, because it caught Burrows and Horvat in their worst positions, but it is also what led to Teuvo Teravainen‘s 2-0 goal.
We see Sbisa and Gudbranson covering the two attackers in front of the net, with Burrows lying on the ground and Horvat standing up closer to the blue line. This was captured after a point shot by Justin Faulk. You couldn’t tell here, but just seconds before this image, the Canucks were standing in a perfect box. A shot from Faulk was all it took to pull Horvat and Burrows out of position in an attempt to block it, transforming their box into a 2-1-1.
Again, the Canucks tried to play a box but ended up being a 2-1-1, leaving players open on both sides of the ice — including Teravainen who was wide open for the rebound.
As mentioned earlier, PK strategies are easier explained than executed. When you see an attacker winding up for a slap shot, you jump in to block it, and don’t think about what could happen after you did it. Which is an important note.
The Canucks need to find two (make it three if you can) units that can do exactly that: work as a unit while formatted as a box, anticipate plays, angle and funnel players the way you want them to play instead of chasing the puck. It isn’t easy, but it is essential.
The unit of Sutter-Hansen-Sbisa-Gudbranson showed how it can and needs to work. It is the coaching staff’s task to find more units that can work the same way sooner rather than later.