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Systems Analyst: It’s The Little Things

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Like faceoffs and well-executed set plays.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Hurricanes’ power play has rarely been marked by efficiency, but their efforts with the man-advantage last night were executed with seemingly newfound precision.

Perhaps even more interesting is that the two power-play tallies Carolina potted came from faceoff plays — one of the team’s focus points under the tutelage of Rod Brind’Amour. We’ve seen the Canes work with set plays befre, but for the team to settle into them immediately off the drop of the puck is a promising development.

Sebastian Aho’s strike knotted the game at two after the Caps went ahead in the second period. Justin Williams wins the faceoff with help from Jordan Staal.

Don’t undervalue Staal’s contribution here — most faceoffs in today’s NHL are actually won by players on the wing, especially with this year’s restrictions on what tools centers can and cannot use to win the puck.

With the puck won, all five players immediately work towards their positions. Aho walks the blue line and trades passes with Justin Faulk before wiring a shot into the top corner.

This play, as with most effective power-play setups, relies on movement to be successful. Puck and player movement combine to discombobulate the defense and goaltender and open up shooting/passing lanes.

Here, Aho and Faulk working a give-and-go while moving themselves forces Philipp Grubauer to track two kinds of movement at once, in addition to looking around the players in front of him. By the time Aho shoots, the puck has gone across the zone and back to the middle in a matter of a couple seconds, all the while forcing Grubauer to change his angle repeatedly.

It’s easier to see with this angle:

When Faulk has the puck, Grubauer is understandably angled towards him, despite the obvious shooter being Aho. As the puck comes back, Lars Eller follows Williams across the slot, providing an unintentional high screen for Aho to shoot past.

It’s subtle and may not guarantee a goal each time, but quick passes while on the move — even just back and forth along the blue line — will force a netminder to play multiple scenarios and open up new shooting lanes and open parts of the net.

Staal’s PPG, on the other hand, is something we’ve seen before. Probably the most “tic-tac-toe” play there is, one player collects the puck at the half wall and sends it to the goal line, where it is then sent to a man in front (usually Staal) in a one-touch passing flurry.

Staal wins the faceoff, again with help from the winger. In this case, its Aho lending a hand to find Faulk.

Nothing too different from Aho’s goal here, but again, notice how quickly Faulk begins to move. The second he gets the puck, he walks the line towards the center of the ice to open up more room on the wing and force the goaltender to adjust his angle.

As Faulk moves, Jay Beagle follows to block his shooting lane, which leaves Aho open for a pass on the wing.

Aaaand cue the set play. Williams sits in Elias Lindholm’s usual spot, but you can already see the three players readying for what’s coming. Staal has his stick on the ice, awaiting a pass, while Williams gets close enough to the goal to keep his pass to Staal as quick and crisp as possible. All Aho has to do is sell the idea of him shooting enough to freeze the defense for a split-second.

Brooks Orpik bites on Aho’s slight delay, and that’s all she wrote. Aho to Williams to Staal to the back of the net for the game’s opening goal.

I’ve said it before — the best power plays revolve around puck and player movement. Here, we see the first part of that executed perfectly. It’s not a new play, but it will work as long as goalies and penalty kill units continue to stay as conservative as they currently do. But this play doesn’t end in a goal if the Canes don’t one-time their passes instantly.

With Williams at the goal line, Grubauer has to respect his ability to jam the puck, so he hugs the post. Same goes for the defense, which is why Staal is left so open — the Caps are puck-watching. So when Grubauer gets to his post, the puck is already on its way to Staal, who now has a gaping net with the Caps’ goalie so deep in his net and without time to cut down the angle.

The pain of losing the game at (literally) the last second stings, but the team’s power play operating at such a high rate is cause for more excitement. You know, besides new ownership the brightest future in Raleigh the team has had in years.