The Ottawa Senators’ play on special teams – penalty kill and power play – is near the bottom of the league. While their power play started off hot, scoring three goals in one game against Toronto, it has since dropped down to 13.5%, while their penalty kill, which was hovering around 80%, has plunged over the past week to 75.5%, 5th worst in the league. A particularly good way of measuring overall special teams play is to add a team’s power play percentage with their penalty kill percentage to get their combined number. Generally the top five teams in the league will have a combined total over 105 while 100 is the league average. Ottawa’s current total this year? 89%, better than only the Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Toronto Maple Leafs, not good company for a team with playoff ambitions. Later on this week I’ll look at why Ottawa’s power play has been so anemic, but today’s focus is on the penalty kill.
Ottawa’s game on Halloween Night demonstrated just how scary a bad penalty kill can be. Within the first 26 minutes of the game Ottawa was down 2-0 because of two power play goals by the Wings. Down 2-0 at home before the game is even half way done is a great way to kill momentum and while Ottawa managed to get three on the night, they still ended up losing 5-3. While many factors can change the course of play in a game, two successful kills instead of goals could have resulted in the game going to overtime and Ottawa snagging at least one point. However, it isn’t Detroit who best exposed Ottawa’s deficiencies killing penalties. Rather, I want to rewind to the October 17th game against the Nashville Predators.
Peter Laviolette Did Homework On Ottawa
Watch James Neal score against the Senators during the first period of the Ottawa – Nashville game.
James Neal has the puck close to the Ottawa blue line before giving it to Roman Josi. Neal, a right-handed shot then goes to the open left side of the Ottawa net, placing himself on his off wing. However, Ottawa’s left defender, Patrick Wiercoche, doesn’t follow Neal deeper, while the other defenseman, Cody Ceci, is tying up Filip Forsberg in front of the net. Thus Neal is left uncovered with an open path to the net. As any minor hockey coach will tell you, leaving a pure goal scorer like Neal with that much time and space is bound to hurt the defending team and in this case it sure does. Neal drops his shoulder, powers to the net and its 1-0 Nashville. But now lets fast forward to the third period and another Nashville power play.
As the Nashville announced says, “Its deja vu.” While it isn’t Josi giving him the puck, Neal goes to his off wing and is able to find space yet again, suggesting that Nashville’s coach drew up this play for his top power play unit. From Ottawa’s perspective, what is particularly concerning is that it isn’t Wiercioche on the ice this time but rather Jared Cowen who is playing very high in the defensive zone and giving Neal an option down low. If it was the same defenseman you could simply blame these goals on the poor positioning of one player. However, the fact is that the Ottawa Senators’ penalty kill is based on a box where the defensemen play high in their own zone. In theory this approach takes away shots from the sideboards and the point but if the defense are not aware of where opponents are on the ice, it can leave the team exposed down low. Clearly the Predators’ coaching staff watched tapes of previous Senators’ games and instructed Neal to take advantage of the open space down low.
Troubles Continue Against Detroit
While Nashville’s dissection of Ottawa was masterful, other teams are also catching on. Watch Detroit’s first goal against Ottawa, which as I mentioned above, comes on the power play.
The two Senators’ defenders on the ice are Mark Borowiecki and Jared Cowen. As you can see on the right side of the ice, Cowen is playing high up in the zone and leaves a seam for Gustav Nyquist to walk into. Additionally, because Borowiecki is playing high up as well, Justin Abdelkater is able to screen Anderson uncontested. Thus Tomas Tatar, who has the puck, can either shoot with an effective screen in place or try the cross-ice pass. Ultimately, he goes for the shot and beats a screened Crag Anderson. Ottawa’s defense should take away both options but at minimum need to eliminate one of them, allowing their goaltender to focus on one of the shot or the pass.
Simply put, have the two defensemen play closer to the net. With the exception of Marc Methot, Ottawa’s penalty killers are not quick enough to adjust when the puck gets put into open space down by the goal line. However, they are strong enough to win physical battles in front of the net. By playing deeper in their own zone they can make it difficult for opponents to get to the net either to shoot – Like Neal did – or screen the goalie – as Abdelkater managed to do. Admittedly such an approach gives away space on the perimeter and might result in more shots on net. However, if the defense can ensure Anderson or Andrew Hammond can see the puck, then either goalie will most likely make those saves. Regardless those are low quality scoring chances compared to the high quality ones Ottawa’s penalty kill unit is currently giving away.
As it stands, adjusting how Ottawa kills penalties might not make much of a difference. As I’ve said before, the Senators lack depth on defence, as Methot’s recent concussion demonstrated. However, failing to demonstrate any tactical flexibility is only going to ensure Ottawa’s special teams remain ineffective. Nashville figured out how to exploit the Senators’ weakness as did Detroit. It is only a matter of time before other teams do as well.
I am a Canadian historian studying at UBC and currently living in Ottawa ON. who grew up watching and playing hockey. I write about the Ottawa Senators, past and present, for The Hockey Writers. I think fancy stats are great. Also a huge soccer and Rugby fan.