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On “cat-and-mouse game” between Sharks power play and Avalanche penalty kill

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Brent Burns #88 and Erik Karlsson #65 of the San Jose Sharks during the third period of the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on January 16, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Sharks 6-3. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In Craig Custance’s Behind the Bench: Inside the Minds of Hockey’s Greatest Coaches, Mike Sullivan talked about the tactical back-and-forth on special teams in a playoff series:

“There’s always that cat-and-mouse game with coaching staffs. More in a series. It’a kind of read-and-react. It happens a lot on special teams. Most of the adjustments are on special teams, whether a team is doing a special breakout, power play breakout.”

This cat-and-mouse game has come to life in this series, as the San Jose Sharks power play breakout has been continually frustrated by the Colorado Avalanche penalty kill.

“I don’t think we’ve been very good in this series,” Logan Couture said of the power play in Games 1 and 2. “We haven’t entered cleanly.”

In Games 1 and 2, the Sharks relied heavily on the five-man “swing”, which looks like this:

Eight of 12 Brent Burns or Erik Karlsson-led breakouts at 5-on-4 used this formation. They tried just two drop passes. However, San Jose enjoyed just seven controlled zone entries in 12 attempts.

In Game 3, however, the Sharks flipped the script on the Avalanche. Eight of 13 Burns or Karlsson-led breakouts utilized the drop pass. There were zero five-man “swings”. San Jose enjoyed 11 controlled zone entries in 13 attempts.

Here’s a drop pass example from Game 3:

“We did a good job of controlling the zone entry,” Kevin Labanc said of Game 3.

Predictably, Colorado adjusted: Their first forechecker (F1), instead of attacking Karlsson (65) from the side and leaving the rear open for the drop pass, lurked behind Karlsson, trying to jump the pass.

This is an example from Game 5:

That’s a trailing Gabriel Landeskog (92) mirroring Karlsson’s every move. While Karlsson gained the zone, the Sharks would prefer a Karlsson drop pass to Tomas Hertl’s speed coming from behind.

We’re not done! This is how San Jose reacted:

Instead of a hard push toward the middle, Karlsson moved deliberately to the right lane. This forced Colorado’s F1 (Matt Nieto, 83) to stick with Karlsson, opening up the middle and left lanes for the two drop options, Hertl (48) and Timo Meier (28).

Since the Avalanche are aware that Hertl is the go-to guy in this scenario, Karlsson instead dropped it to Meier. Notice Nieto shaded toward Hertl, perhaps expecting a pass to the go-to guy.

Karlsson set a soft pick on Nieto, slowing the F1’s speed. Meier entered and handed the puck off to Labanc (62), who dropped it to the point. Now, it’s Hertl’s turn to set a pick on Nieto; Karlsson goes around and fires it.

In the third period, Colorado countered:

Same set-up, but it appears that the Avs played Labanc, Meier’s passing option, tighter, encouraging Meier to play hero ball.

But anyway, the Sharks got the last laugh, as they brought back the five-man “swing” on the power play zone entry that would lead to Hertl’s game-tying goal.

The interesting wrinkle here is Hertl’s activity, as he essentially soft picked the entire Colorado penalty kill for Karlsson.

According to the Czech center, this wasn’t a set play: “We have to make [creative] plays, make moves.”

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

Who starts the power play?

In the first three games of this series, Burns started four power plays by himself and Karlsson three. They started one together.

However, in Games 4 and 5, an interesting trend has emerged. Burns has started zero power plays by himself. Karlsson has started five, while they’ve teamed up for two together.

Per Natural Stat Trick, Karlsson played a team-high 9:08 at 5-on-4 in Games 4 and 5; Burns clocked just 4:41.

Now consider that Burns has been tasked, along with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, with shadowing Nathan MacKinnon. In Game 5, Burns skated a team-high 12:34 at 5-on-5 against MacKinnon. Karlsson saw MacKinnon for just 2:46.

Is Peter DeBoer preserving Burns by giving Karlsson the bulk of the work on the man advantage?

“Exactly,” DeBoer offered, when asked about this in the morning.

Remember that Karlsson did a lot of heavy lifting defensively in December and January. What’s it like to be able to use two Norris Trophy winners interchangeably?

“Huge luxury,” said DeBoer. “We’re a different team when both of those guys are in and healthy.”