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Series Preview: Blues’ Special Teams

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Looking at the X’s and O’s of St. Louis’ power play and penalty kill units.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Minnesota Wild at St. Louis Blues Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike the Nashville Predators’ first round playoff opponent, the St. Louis Blues likely consider their special teams to be a strength of theirs. Comparing the Predators to the Blues, the special teams match-up likely favors the latter.

The St. Louis power play underwent two major transitions this season, first following former head coach Ken Hitchkock’s departure, and secondly following Kevin Shattenkirk’s trade to the Washington Capitals. Oddly enough, both changes ended up having positive effects for the Blues’ power play. In a similar way to how the Predators used to always lean on Shea Weber, the Blues always had the puck on Shattenkirk’s stick. Now, without him, the power play has become much more dynamic and diversified. It’s also worth noting that, despite losing Shattenkirk, their power play still has this guy called Vladmir Tarasenko on it. Tarasenko is kind of really good at hockey, especially the whole shooting part. Ultimately. the Blues finished the season 9th overall in power play efficiency with a 21.0% conversion rate.

On the other end of the ice, the Blues had the 3rd best penalty kill in the league, preventing goals 84.8% of the time opponents had a man advantage. With the large size their defensemen possess, they are able to really limit chances in the interior and shut down opponents and their ability to do, well, anything. While Jay Bowmeester may make my list of top five most overrated defensemen, it’s not for his lack of shut down presence. He certainly leads St. Louis’ charge of hulking, defense-first penalty killers that negate any opportunities around the net.

Considering the strength of the Blues’ special teams, let’s look at what strategies they employ, why they work, and what the Predators can do against them. If you are not yet acquainted with the specific strategies and goals within basic power play and penalty kill systems, make sure you read the following section before scrolling down to the analysis on St. Louis’ systems.

Power Play Systems

Umbrella

The Umbrella system is exactly as it sounds. Two players stand towards the net in the middle of the slot, forming the umbrella cane. Meanwhile, one player stands at the top of the umbrella, centered at the blue line, while two other players hang just a tad above the face-off circles near the boards.

The two goals in the umbrella system are to have either the guy up top fire a low wrist or snap shot through traffic or having one of the two players by the top of the circles fire a one-time shot. Regardless of which option is chosen, the two players down low in the slot then attempt to shovel home any rebounds.

The player at the top of the umbrella cannot just fire a bomb of a slapshot because he’s the last line of defense. Often when short handed goals occur in the NHL, it’s because a big slap shot was taken from the top of an umbrella system, was blocked, and immediately resulted in a 2 on 1 the other way.

Overload

The goal of the overload system is also true to its name, as the team on the power play hopes to overload one half of the offensive zone with their players. Most overload systems have one player below the goal line, one low on one side of the boards, one player in front of the net, and then two defensemen up at the blue line. If a line was drawn connecting each player, nearly the entirety of either the left or right side of the offensive zone would be covered while the other half would be empty.

This system gives teams a lot of options. Common plays are operating a give-and-go between the player on the boards and the player below the goal line. The defensemen both need to have hard shots, but more importantly they need good puck handling skills. Of course, the player in front of the net is there to net as many garbage goals as possible.

While important with any system, it is imperative in the overload to be constantly moving. The moment an opponent is sucked in to the player with the puck, passing lanes are open. If an opponent is being sucked in to the puck-handler while rotating with a teammate, a quick drop pass can easily result in a lopsided 4 on 3 or a dynamite give-and-go scoring opportunity.

Penalty Kill Systems

Box

A trend that’s clear to see, these names accurately reflect the physical look of the set up on a coach’s whiteboard. In this penalty kill system, all four defenders should be positioned at the corners of a box were one to connect them with lines.

The goal of the box is to shut down the middle of the ice. It doesn’t really matter if the other team has the puck on the perimeter, as that means that they likely aren’t getting quality scoring chances. If an opponent isn’t in a good scoring position with the puck, there is no reason to chase them from their current post.. That being said, it’s not an aggressive, turnover-producing system, so the team on the power play likely can possess the puck for long lengths of time.

Diamond

A counter to the umbrella power play, the diamond is, once again, just as one would expect. One defender is attempting to cut off the puck from the attacker quarterbacking the play from the center of the blue line, while two other defenders try to deny shots from the players up by the top of the circles who are looking for one-timers.

The glaring flaw with the diamond is if the defender trying to disrupt the centered blue line attacker. If that attacker is able to get a shot past that defender, the attacking team has a two on one advantage down in front of the net. Nevertheless, despite its clear drawback, some teams choose to run this system.

St. Louis Power Play

Using an overload, the St. Louis Blues try to keep the puck on sniper Vladmir Tarasenko’s stick as much as possible, and for good reason too. He assembled 9 goals and 22 points on the power play this season and is widely known for having one of the most lethal wrist shots in hockey. However, #91 is also an underrated passer. His excellent game sense and play-making ability makes him the perfect choice to run the power play. Accordingly, when the Blues set up shop in the opponents’ zone while having the man advantage, they overload the play on the right side of the ice with Tarasenko on the boards by the face-off circle hash-marks.

In this goal from round one, Tarasenko spots an opening to the far side of the ice. Alexander Steen, the left defenseman, sneaks down the ice as Tarasenko hits him with a pass. Immediately, Steen has a quality shot attempt, as his cheeky play catches the Minnesota penalty killers off guard.

Nevertheless, he holds the puck and wraps around the back of the net. Check out how confused Minnesota’s defenders are by this movement:

Now, what happens is Steen jams the puck to Jaden Schwartz, the middle Blue in this picture, who puts it in the new. However, just as Steen earlier had to option to either shoot or carry the puck low, he still has another option. Mikko Koivu, Selke finalist, has completely lost track of Tarasenko on the right boards. If he wanted, Tarasenko could take three steps and accelerate down for a one-timer or powerful low shot. Alternatively, Steen can pass to Tarasenko on the wall, who could immediately feed it to Alex Pietrangelo near the middle of the blue line, who then has free range to let a long bomb rip through traffic in front of the net. As any power play in the NHL, the Blues thrive off of their multitude of options.

However, the cross-ice pass seems to be the common denominator in generating these other options.

Once again, despite this play being on the rush rather than developing through sustained pressure, the Blues use a cross-ice pass to catch the Panthers out of position. Furthermore, it’s from the same direction: originating in the right side of the ice and transferred to the left. In Alex’s article Monday previewing the St. Louis defense, he posted the following visualization of unblocked 5v4 shots.

See that big, blue circle? That’s the exact location where these cross-ice passes are coming through. When a team makes a cross-ice pass like that, new shooting and passing lanes are opened because defenders simply cannot move as fast as the passed puck. Sure, the Blues don’t have to shoot the puck from that location, and they have shown that they will use other available options, but when they do shoot immediately off the cross-ice pass, they’re getting the puck through to the goalie.

St. Louis Penalty Kill

Finishing third overall in penalty kill efficiency, the Predators are likely to have a challenging time breaking through St. Louis with the extra man. Unlike the Blackhawks, who used a box system against both overload and umbrella systems, the Blues only use it against the overload.

The best way to characterize the Blues penalty kill is aggressive. Unlike other teams, they will use their size and reach to challenge opponents, often creating turnovers in the process.

However, sometimes this aggression morphs into over-aggression.

Here the Blues’ forward Patrik Berglund, clocking in at 6’4” and 223lbs, jumps all over Erik Staal. As other Wild members come in to help out, Blues defenseman Joel Edmundson also comes to help out. While that’s all fine and dandy at even strength, Edmundson’s aggressive commitment to the puck places more responsibilities on the remaining Blues.

Look at Vladmir Sobotka (#71) up high. He can’t clog the passing lanes to either Wild defender. If Sobotka does commit to a defender and the Wild retrieve this puck, they can pass it to the other player for a completely free lane to shoot in or to skate the puck in for a shot closer to goaltender Jake Allen.

Although Sobotka doesn’t commit until the pass to Jared Spurgeron, the ensuing pass across the blue line leaves He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named wide open with all the time in the world. Accordingly, he rips a shot into the back of the net, punishing the Blues for their over-aggression and commitment along the boards.

All this being said, if the other team is only scoring because of your own mistakes and not anything spectacular that they themselves are able to generate, you’re probably doing just fine.

Against the umbrella, the Blues mix things up and go to a diamond formation rather than a box. Just to restate the point of the diamond formation, the top skater prevents the top of the umbrella from getting a shot off. The Blues have been able to use this formation to a lot of success so far this season, greatly restricting the time and space that opponents have with the puck and, once again, causing turnovers with their aggression.

However, the fatal flaw of the diamond is that, when a puck does get through to the net, there are often a lack of defenders in front. Because the umbrella places two forwards right in front of the net and the diamond leaves only one defenseman to deal with them, there is a mismatch of numbers. Below we see exactly that happen.

What does this mean for the Predators?

Yikes...

The Predators power play is likely going to struggle. A lot. I love Viktor Arvidsson just as much as the next person, but does anyone really think he’s going to outmuscle the 6’6”, 226lb Colton Parayko in front of the net? It doesn’t get much better against the likes of the 6’4” Bowmeester and Edmundson. At least Pietrangelo is only 6’3”, right? We know that P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Matthias Ekholm can all score from the point, but their shots need to go into the net instead of creating rebounds this series. There’s not a lot of hope for the Predators winning those battles in the crease against the Blues.

On the penalty kill, the Predators also have their hands full. The key of course will be taking away the cross-ice pass. Being able to track Tarasenko’s passing lanes will be critical for preventing the Blues from scoring on the power play.