Only a small handful of pundits seem to be picking the Dallas Stars over the Nashville Predators in this upcoming playoff series. For them, the key is special teams, which is a problem that has plagued the Predators for over a year and a half.
Special teams are such a crux of high-intensity, high-pressure games. The emotion swing from scoring a goal or killing off a big penalty resonates up and down benches like an earthquake. Failing to score on a key power play leaves a strong feeling of “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve” in losses. These are points of key opportunities and timestamps on games where the feel of the game can drastically change.
From the beginning of 2018 until the end of last season, the Predators had the 28th-ranked power play in the NHL. This season, unbelievably, the problem worsened. After 82 games, the Predators owned the absolute worst power play in the NHL.
In contrast, special teams excellence has been a hallmark of the Dallas Stars this season. With the fifth-best penalty kill and a power play just outside of the top ten, the Stars are more than prepared to prevent the Predators from gaining any momentum when somebody goes to the penalty box. What should we expect?
Overview of power play/penalty kill systems
The umbrella system is exactly as it sounds. Two players stand towards the net in the middle of the slot, forming the umbrella pole. 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 objectives in the umbrella system are to either have the player at the top of the umbrella fire a low wrist or snap shot through traffic, or to have 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 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 defenders up at the blue line. If a line were 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. A common play is operating a give-and-go between the player on the boards and the player below the goal line. The defenders both need to have hard shots, but more importantly they need good puckhandling skills. Of course, the player in front of the net is there to net as many garbage goals as possible.
While it’s 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.
These names, too, accurately reflect the physical look of the setup on a coach’s whiteboard.
In this penalty kill system, all four defenders should be positioned at the corners of a box if one were 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 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.
A counter to the umbrella power play, the diamond is, once again, just as one would expect. One penalty-killer is attempting to cut off the puck from the attacker quarterbacking the play from the center of the blue line, while two others 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 with the penalty-killer trying to disrupt the centered blue line attacker. If that attacker is able to get a shot past that penalty-killer, 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.
The Dallas Stars’ Power Play
Unlike the Predators, the Dallas Stars have an extremely potent power play, finishing 11th in the NHL. Also unlike the Predators, the Dallas Stars play an overload power play and, interestingly, operate from the corner rather than the half-wall.
Typically, Tyler Seguin will be the puck-holder in the corner to the left of the opposition’s goalie. Opposite of him, playing the role of “fourth forward,” is old friend Alexander Radulov. The two occasionally find each other in the other’s spot, but that typically only comes about when they cycle the puck down low.
Once in the corner, either Seguin or Radulov will try and find the other on the opposite side for a stretch pass. Typically, it will be Seguin in the corner, stickhandling and moving to try and get the opposition to bring their system down low, collapsing in on itself. Then, as soon as they start moving one way, Seguin will pounce, re-positioning and threading a pass through traffic cross-ice.
Referring again to the whiteboard above, this common pass made by the Stars is labeled as option 2. Option 1 on the whiteboard is a quick, short pass to the slot, either to be deflected or for whoever the X higher in the slot is to slide backdoor for a tip-in or quick shot.
The challenge presented for the Predators’ penalty kill will be to somehow stop Seguin in the corner while monitoring the other four members of the Stars’ power play. Perhaps the place to start is by utilizing a diamond penalty kill. In all of these examples, we see the Stars utterly dismantle box system after box system. The least dangerous player on the ice is whoever the defender on Tyler Seguin’s wall is, typically John Klingberg. Yet with each of these examples, we see teams commit to the box and have a player guarding Klingberg. It would perhaps make much more sense to run a diamond, with the top player still keeping an eye out for Klingberg, but focusing on Radulov.
Additionally, because of all the cross-ice passing, the Stars open themselves up to turnovers, which could turn into odd-man rushes. With the diamond, while the Predators would relinquish more territory on the boards, they would have a better chance of intercepting a pass and maybe finding Viktor Arvidsson some chances shorthanded off the rush.
Nonetheless, the point is irrelevant if Seguin is given free rein. He has too much skill to leave to his own devices, which is why teams have been collapsing in towards him in the first place. Whichever defender is responsible for covering Seguin is going to have the gargantuan task of not over-committing while still limiting his space. Many teams have failed, which is why the Stars have had such success.
The Dallas Stars’ Penalty Kill
Not only are the Stars lethal on the power play; they are suffocating on the penalty kill. With the 5th best penalty kill in the league of 82.8%, the Dallas Stars have done a phenomenal job minimizing punishment for their penalties.
[Ed.: They’ve also gotten good goaltending shorthanded as well as at 5v5. The penalty kill is good, but the goaltending has made it airtight.]
Even though the Stars get scored on in this clip, it’s easy to see why their power play is so effective: the Stars are always moving their feet. It sounds like such a simple, trivial thing, but when your feet are always moving, you’re always going to be ready to move or shift directions. Roope Hintz, #24 in this example, is always, always shifting around.
However, there is one way to beat teams who are always moving, and that’s to tire them out or to wait until they make a bad decision. Most of the time when a team appears to be passing the puck around pointlessly, they are trying to tire out opposing players and force them into a mistake.
Looking back to the last goal, Hintz does make one fatal slip when he makes a power turn away from the puck as it’s passed between the Philadelphia defenders. When he’s positioned in a way that has him looking toward his goalie rather than the two defenders, he loses sight of the puck completely. As a result, the Flyers pass the puck right back, catching Hintz off-guard, and fire a low shot through the shooting lane.
In emotion-riddled playoff games, having patience is going to be a challenge for the Nashville Predators, especially with everyone in the hockey world commenting on how bad their power play is.
Nonetheless, poise and patience are going to be paramount in the Predators’ efforts to wear down their opposition. The Stars hustle and play against their opponent’s power play the right way, giving 100% every second they’re out there killing a penalty. It makes their box system incredibly taxing and tiring to play against, and what has lead to all of the Stars’ success on the penalty kill this season.
Fans may not like it, but playing patient, slow hockey in the offensive zone and letting Dallas tire themselves out is probably the Preds’ best bet on finding a chance through their stifling penalty kill.