A loss in the playoffs can usually be categorized in a couple different ways. There are blowouts (hello, Game 1), the standard solidly outplayed losses, hard fought battles that are decided by a bounce, and then the shooting-themselves-in-their-own-foot type losses. Game 3 was very much a case of the Sharks outright dominating the Golden Knights before becoming mentally unhinged and taking a string of stupid and undisciplined penalties. This allowed the Knights to get back in the game and take the lead. San Jose then had to battle back to force overtime before yet again, shooting themselves in the foot and collecting a head-scratching loss.
Normally a loss like that would induce a mentality that the sky is falling, but that’s not the case this time. Despite some stupid errors, San Jose played well and could’ve won this game. There are a few simple fixes — aside from things like just not elbowing guys behind the play — that can elevate San Jose above the annoying Knights.
One such fix is a small shift in the power play: namely, the passing.
The basic tenant of a power play is to control the puck and get it to a player who has the most optimal scoring chance. This is done through a two-fold plan of positioning and passing. Each team uses these two basic ideas and deploys them in various ways. San Jose opts to have a body in front, often Captain Tips Joe Pavelski or the big body of Tomas Hertl, with two blueline men and two players floating from the goal line up to the dot. To contrast this, think of a Capitals style power play that utilizes a 1-3-1 style, allowing a player like Alex Ovechkin to set up shop on a wing and blast one-timers.
Next is the key ingredient: passing.
We’ve all seen a sputtering power play where the defense passes back and forth and eventually gives it to a winger for a low-angle wrist shot or an attempt to get a tip by the middle man. Passing around the outside of the defensive players is okay when they want to get certain players in certain spots on the ice, but it doesn’t cause much grief defensively. A defender can move a few feet while he mirrors the puck from one side to the other and maintain good positioning.
What a good power play does with these passes is ideally getting those defenders to “run around” and pull themselves out of position, opening up passing and shooting lanes. These lanes create the optimal path to goals, because often times they end up with a goalie hurling his body desperately from one side of the crease to another trying to keep up with the pass and eventual shot.
Looking back at Game 3, we can clearly point to the power play as an area of the game that could have buried Vegas early on and led to a cruising Sharks victory. At its zenith, the Sharks power play is a destroyer of worlds, but too often it becomes complacent and relies far, far too much on the patented Burnzie Bombs.
The Vegas penalty kill is not super aggressive at the top. They don’t go flying out at the defender and if the puck goes to a wing, they close with positioning to choke passing lanes, rather than coming in to level a hit. This gives San Jose more time to zip passes around — in theory, setting up the deadly cross-box pass.
But so often, and especially in Game 3, the puck would filter to a low winger, who then passed back up top for either a clapper or a pass to the other defenseman for a slap shot from that point. These are long distance, lower quality chances that rely heavily on getting tipped in or sneaking passed a well-placed screen. Usually the shot is blocked or swallowed up by a goalie in position — and Marc-Andre Fleury is good at being in position.
So in turn, the power play has a lethal feel to it by sheer amount of rubber directed at net and the constant pressure applied by the Sharks. But if the goalie sees every shot and Pavelski can’t quite get his lumber on a tip; has the power play been all that effective?
Enter cross-ice passing.
Though harder than it looks, this is something that is done game in and game out by other teams. When the puck slides to the low winger and he pulls it below the dot, he now has the close defender moving towards him and away from the net. This means the off-side defender has to step into that space and cover the area directly in front of Marc-Andre Fleury. The close winger will often also pinch down to squeeze the passing lane shut. This is the point where the puck will go back up to the defender and lead to blue line slap shots.
What the Sharks need to do before passing the puck back is to get backdoor and make cross-ice passes. With the winger off to the side of the goal, the middle player can either get closer to the crease in hopes of a jam play or drift backwards into the slot for a one-timer. This is a simple play that works and brings the shot on goal in by 15 feet, making it much more dangerous.
While the middle man decides where he wants to go, the other players have options. The strong side defender stays basically where he is, in case the winger gets in trouble and needs an easy pass. However, the off-side winger can freely lurk behind the defenders who have shifted and turned their attention to the puck at the side of the net. So the primary winger gets the puck below the dot and stick handles while he picks out his passing target. The off-side winger can now zip into the gap created by the defenders and put himself into position to receive a pass from one dot to the other for a one timer.
The cousin to this play is if the middle player slides up into the slot, the puck handler can go towards the net and send a pass through the top of the crease to the other winger. This again creates a cross-ice pass that has opened up the defenders like a can opener. The puck moves faster than the players can react, so if it is a halfway decent pass, there should be an easy attempt at net.
You can see this exact type of passing play on the Sharks’ power play goal. Granted, it came off a blocked shot, but you can see the basic elements at play. Chris Tierney collected the blocked shot and saw Timo Meier on the opposite side. He fired a pass right through the middle of the defenders and onto Meier’s stick.
If you pause the play, you can see that by the time Meier gets the puck, none of the Vegas defenders have reacted and positioned themselves. It is difficult to do a 180 degree turn, locate the puck and make a play in one motion. So even though this was instigated by a blocked shot, it still works the same way as if Tierney had just received a pass.
This type of passing is basically how the Knights conduct their power play. They get the puck zipping from one side to the other and get a good Sharks penalty kill to give up lanes and eventually goals.
There are all kinds of variations on opening up the defense, as well. Playing the puck behind the net to an open winger or defender will cause the entire defensive box to turn quickly and try to re-position. This will inevitably lead to passing lanes opening up. This is just one example of using a simple pass around the boards to create better chances.
Another example that failed but had the right idea, was late in the game. The puck was passed to the left side dot. Brent Burns should have slid down behind the defense, giving himself an easy shot at net. Unfortunately, he stayed high and when the puck was sent into the space he should have been in, the Sharks missed a golden opportunity. Even though Burns’ laziness derailed the play, you can see how this little cross-ice pass caused the Knights’ defense to collapse and give up shooting lanes.
Going forward in the series, the Sharks need to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. If Fleury is going to continue on his path of single greatest playoff performance ever, striking with the man-advantage will be imperative. Here’s hoping to the Sharks coaching staff adding this small tweak to a power play brimming with deadly players, instead of relying on a barrage of shots from the point.