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Montreal Canadiens Power Play Needed Some Tinkering

Michael Clifford offers an in depth break down of the Montreal Canadiens’ power play.

PK Subban

Going into Thursday night’s game against Boston, Montreal had a top-10 penalty kill, as they did last year, but the power play was third-worst in the NHL, and under 8 percent for the season. That’s beyond awful, and something that needed to be rectified.

Of course, power plays are inherently problematic. Entries are tough to repeat in an identical manner, and it requires a lot of ad-libbing by the players. Everyone has a position, and the team has to setup, but to get to that point, it’s not always a straight line. One thing that is consistent is that P.K. Subban gets his shots: last season, he hit the net with 15.08 shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-4 time; this year that number is 16.20. His average shot distance at 5-on-4 has gone down this year too, so it’s not like he’s taking bad shots from further-than-normal. Some teams are wise to this, like Buffalo earlier this year pinching extra hard on the passing lane between Subban and Markov:

Buf vs MTL PP Pinching on PK with adds

In that frame, there’s only a couple of feet for Andrei Markov to complete the pass across to P.K. Subban because Subban is a right-handed shot. If he’s a lefty, he’s in a shooting position, and there is an additional few feet of comfort from the pass getting picked off. He’s not, and Markov would end up passing to the player along the wall:

Markov dish-off
This is the norm for Montreal. Unless the face-off was to the left of the opposing goalie, it’s not often Montreal setup with Subban on his off-side, in a one-time position. It happened in the face-off below against the Winnipeg Jets, where the penalty killer doesn’t come out near as far as the Buffalo penalty killer does, and Subban gets his shot off.


Oddly enough, of the power plays I’ve watched, they don’t always do this. Subban should almost always be put in a shooting position, and it’s not always the case. All the same, Subban is getting his shots off on the power play, and he’s not the reason for the failure.

Earlier this week, the Habs traded away forward Travis Moen for Dallas Stars defenseman Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar is another left-handed shot like Andrei Markov, but he was acquired seemingly with the intention to change things up on the power play. The ensuing move pushed Tom Gilbert to the top power play unit with Subban, putting him with another right-handed shot.

Before moving on to the new power play, first it’s necessary to see where the first power play struggled. To be blunt, it struggled in part because of how Andrei Markov was used. He was frequently on his strong-side (so the left side as a left-handed shot), and this didn’t really give him many options. Exhibit A:

Markov No Options

In this frame, we see two Vancouver players between every Montreal option, except for the player in the high slot (Pacioretty) who has one in front of him, and another closing in behind him. Out of the frame, about 10 feet behind my stick figure, is Subban, so he’s not an option either. Markov is playing the left side half-wall (boards) of a 1-3-1 power play setup, which creates some problems. Typically, the guy down low is a playmaker or net-front presence, so that would be Brendan Gallagher particularly here. He could switch out with David Desharnais but that would put Gallagher on the right in a non-shooting position. So Markov’s options are: 1) dump behind the net, 2) force through to Pacioretty, 3) put it on net from a bad angle, 4) Put it in open space to Desharnais’ left. None are good scoring options.

Later in the same power play, Markov would get the puck with his momentum moving back, would have similar options, and dumped a weak shot on net hoping for tip:

Markov Weak Shot

That is not a power play that seems very deadly. That’s not an isolated incident, either. In the same game against Vancouver, Markov pinched down low to get a pass and switch the focus from one side to the other. The problem is P.K. Subban is still a right-handed shot, so he’s not a one-time option. When Markov makes the pass, Subban has no real lane to the net because of Vancouver’s Nick Bonino and Alex Burrows, so he tries to make a pass to Desharnais – who, remember, is in a one-time position in this power play setup – the pass is deflected and cleared:

Markov Low Subban Pass Deflected

It’s fairly clear that Markov is not working in the position he’s in – not to mention having Desharnais in a one-time spot, but that’s more defensible – and that a change was needed. In comes Gonchar via trade, and Gilbert to the top power play unit. That would give the Habs to right-handed options on the power play, and this is what it looked like against Boston:

MTL New PP setup with Gilbert

With Tom Gilbert alongside Subban, Subban now is consistently on his off-side, and in a one-time position. Speaking to a Sportsnet reporter, Subban even admitted he liked playing with right-handed shooting James Wisniewski a few years ago because it made passing lanes easier.

Remember, Montreal’s old power play setup had Markov on the left side of the 1-3-1, putting him in a less-than-ideal shooting position, and the same went for Subban. The new power play set up has Subban in the Alex OvechkinSteven Stamkos Danger Zone in their off-side circle, a deadly position for a one-timer. In the GIF below, a better pass from Gilbert would result in a Subban one-timer, but he has to stop and set it on a tee. Notice, though, that it only took a couple of passes to get Subban in a very good scoring position:
Subban Attempted 1-timer

This is why that setup works:

  • The Boston penalty killers at the top of their box (their forwards) have their responsibilities. Gregory Campbell (number 11) has to pinch between the puck-carrier Tomas Plekanec (number 14), and Gilbert. That leaves their other forward to cover Gilbert and Subban. Once Gilbert gets the puck from Plekanec, the other Boston forward, Daniel Paille, has to pinch on Gilbert. Even though Subban is the most potent option, Paille can’t just let Gilbert walk down the slot with the puck. If Paille does go to Subban, Campbell has to go pinch on Gilbert, and that leaves Plekanec wide open to walk in from the circle. The only other player left to cover Subban, then, is defenseman Dougie Hamilton, but because of his duties in front of the net, he’s late to arrive.

Montreal’s new power play setup paid dividends – admittedly against a poor penalty killing team – on Saturday night against Philadelphia. The Pacioretty unit connected for two goals, while the Plekanec unit added another. The latter was a power play goal from Subban, and look at where he scored from:

Subban PP Goal

Under the old power play setup, that play isn’t possible. With the new power play setup, Subban is almost always in a shooting position, and he controls the entire left side of the ice. It’s obviously just one game, but there’s no doubt the changes to the power play seem to put Montreal in a better position to succeed.

*Thanks to Hockey Analysis, War On Ice, and Hockey Reference for their resources.

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