On the Sens PK
It has been a familiar scene for Sens opposition all season long. Final buzzer goes, words to the press and a quick scan of the stat sheet to find the old 0-fer in the "POWER PLAYS" column.
As many of you certainly know by this point, the Senators are owners of the best penalty kill in hockey. With a kill rate of 88.3 per cent, they edge out the Boston Bruins — a team much more widely celebrated for their defensive play — for the special teams honour.
Now, with the Bruins it's easy to simply point at players like Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron or Tuukka Rask as the reasons behind their success. With the Sens, it's not so simple. The 2013 season has brought with it a revolving door of cast members at every position on the ice. Yet, with that revolving door has come consistency shorthanded regardless of who is in goal, on the blueline or taking the draw.
The question at this point simply becomes: "How?"
The logical step from here is to look at the system employed by Coach MacLean's staff. Clearly it has proven to be an effective paint by numbers approach to locking down some of the top power plays in hockey. Case in point: four of the top five most efficient power plays in the NHL are Eastern Conference teams. The Sens have found ways to stop all of them.
A key contributor to the penalty kill from day one this season has been Erik Condra. Not only does Condra average roughly over two minutes of penalty kill ice time per game with the Sens — the most of any player on the team — he finishes more penalty kill shifts in the offensive zone than any other Senators player at 45.7%.
To recap: player who kills the most penalties on the team finishes the most shifts in front of the opposing goaltender. That's a good sign. They say good teams need their best penalty killer to be their goalie. Ottawa's number 22 hasn't been far behind.
According to Condra the Sens ability to create pressure on an opponent and impose their will has been a decisive factor in keeping pucks out of their net.
"First of all it's winning the faceoff and getting it down the ice. Our main goal is to not let them get set up ever," said Condra. "That starts on the break in. We like to pressure, we don't want them to do what they want. We want to force them into what we want to do."
"Sometimes we sit back but once one guy goes we all go."
Taking a look at how the Sens do things certainly seems to verify that approach.
From last night's game against Pittsburgh — wherein the Sens killed off five power plays — we can see how they dynamically adjust their system to force the offence into uncomfortable situations.
From this clip early on in the power play, the Sens are all lined up to take away the slot below the hashmarks as the puck makes its way towards the point. As it is moved to the open man at the faceoff dot, the shooter is forced to try and get it through three bodies, resulting in an easy save for Craig Anderson.
Immediately afterwards is when the Sens ratchet up the pressure.
The save causes the puck to be cleared towards the blueline where it is held by the Pens and the point man is immediately pressured and chips it down the sideboards. As the man along the sideboard is pressured he is forced to throw it back quickly around the first defender to the point. While he ultimately completed the pass and the Pens get another shot on goal a few seconds later, the Sens are forcing their hand nonetheless.
All five Penguins players are above the faceoff dots and by forcing hasty passes to the point under duress you're ensuring the possibility of turnovers — which they ultimately get later in the shift — and keeping traffic away from your goaltender. By playing so tight on the offensive zone players the Sens are challenging the shape of the offensive set and creating turnovers by forcing uncomfortable situations for attackers .
The collective ability to divert and retrieve the puck is something stressed by the coaching staff — specifically Mark Reeds — according to Condra.
"We do a lot of things where we try to get down and block away pucks with our sticks and take away angles and Mark Reeds is very good at that. He helps us out a lot with that."
There is certainly no doubting that goaltending has been a huge factor in the Sens ability to prevent power play goals against, but the skaters have been excellent at diminishing the opposing power play's ability to execute. Their penalty kill proficiency has been steeped in forcing incommodious first chances for opponents, which give the goaltender a clear avenue to the puck, and clearing those second and third chances.
Take the shift displayed above, for example. Jarome Iginla ultimately earns a shot in tight but has nowhere to shoot except right into Anderson and is denied a second chance before the Sens clear the zone. The Pens don't want to give Anderson time to get square to a puck, let alone have perfect positioning to stop one.
As the Sens attempt to work their way through crunch time with three games left in the season, fans should take some solace in the fact that they are the lone penalty kill in hockey with a shorthanded save percentage above .900.
Good defensive systems shine through in the most difficult games. Ottawa's penalty kill rope-a-dope is as good a system as there is in the NHL.
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