Thursday, March 6, 2008

Death by PK

If Guy Carbonneau and his staff are making a list of things to improve before the playoffs start, I hope it begins and ends with the penalty kill. Because, honestly, the PK is killing the Habs.

Take the last game against the Sharks. Sharks of course won, 6-4. The difference was the two PP goals given up by the Habs, with no goals for in the special teams department. Which proves a great PK will defeat a great PP, and when it comes down to it, the teams with the better PKs will win playoff series. NHL stats today say the Canadiens' PK is ranked 26th in the league, with a less-than-stellar 80.2%. Or, as I'm sure Carbonneau refers to it, fourth last.

Maybe it's an Eastern Conference thing. The Buffalo Sabres are the top PK team in the east, tied for eighth place with Detroit with an 83.8 success rate. Which means more than half the teams in the west are as good or better on the PK than every single team in the east. The tight defensive style most western teams play, including on the PK, is one reason why every pundit out there expects whatever team wins the east to be anihilated in the Stanley Cup finals.

While some of us would like to think the PKs in the east are so mediocre because they have to face the Habs' PP multiple times a year (ha ha!), the fact remains that the Canadiens need to improve that aspect of their game if they expect to make a serious playoff run. So the question becomes, how do they do that?

I think part of the reason they suffer on the penalty kill is that they're not aggressive enough on the puck carrier. We often see them succeed at retrieving and clearing dump-ins, and turning back opposing attempts to penetrate the defensive zone. But once the other team sets up, it seems as though it's only a matter of time before they score. The Canadiens are working the four-man box properly, but they don't press the puck carrier or move out of the box to block passing lanes like they did when things were clicking along last year. It's obviously not a coaching issue, because if I can see this problem, you can be damn sure the coaching staff...defensive icons all...can see it too. So, it comes down to personnel.

There's a guy at the university of New Brunswick who's collected stats on how many goals against various forward and defensive pairings allow per minute of PK time. Those stats show the best penalty killers at forward, and the most-often used, are Plekanec and Kovalev, with a stellar 3.7 goals allowed for every sixty minutes they play shorthanded. Compare that with the "defensive" forwards Begin and Smolinski, who allow 12.7 goals for every sixty minutes they play on the PK. Interestingly, Francis Bouillon is the best defenceman on the penalty kill, on the ice for 5.9 goals against for every sixty shorthanded minutes.

The problem, of course, is that Kovalev and Plekanec can't play entire PKs when they're also playing a regular shift and on the power play. Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre show some promise as a PK pair, allowing 4.8 goals against per sixty minutes shorthanded. But they've been used only a third of the amount of time as have Smolinski and Begin.

So, perhaps it's time for Carbonneau and his staff to take a close look at who's on the ice for PP goals against, and try the guys who have the better averages at preventing those goals. Because it's easy to play opponents who can't stop the number one PP in the league, which offsets one of the worst PKs on most nights. But when the Canadiens try to compete with teams who can shut down the PP, that porous penalty kill is going to be the death of them.

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