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Breaking Down the Senators’ Struggling Power Play

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Ottawa is 0-for-16 on the man advantage to start the 2017-18 campaign.

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

It may be hard to believe, but the Senators’ last 5-on-4 goal came off the stick of Ryan Dzingel against the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semi Final.

That was April 27. Five months ago. 16 games ago. 78 minutes of power play time ago.

Miraculously, the team has had a tremendous amount of success, despite the disastrous, lackluster execution on the man advantage. During the drought, they won a second-round playoff series, forced a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Final and, though it’s barely mid-October, have yet to lose a game in regulation this season.

The 2016-17 campaign brought with it a significant excuse with regards to the struggling power play. Head coach Guy Boucher was adamant on perfecting a sophisticated defensive strategy from the moment he stepped foot in the nation’s capital, and in turn, the offensive structure seemed to play second fiddle, even when goals were scarce.

To Boucher’s enormous credit, nearly everything he envisioned appeared to ring true last year. The Senators adapted a forecheck, neutral zone trap and defensive zone coverage that stifled the best teams around the league; specifically the high-powered Boston Bruins’ forward corps. Every night in the Bruins’ locker room at the Canadian Tire Centre, I remember the same questions asked and the same answers given.

“How effective is it when Ottawa clogs up the middle like they did tonight?”

“It’s frustrating. We couldn’t get past the blue line.”

Fast forward to the young 2017-18 season and not much has changed in either department.

The Senators look solid as usual without the puck and have had little trouble creating offensive at 5-on-5, but when they draw a penalty, the fanbase simultaneously turns into a pessimistic mob.

Yes, Erik Karlsson, the usual quarterback in such instances, is out of the lineup and will be for at least the rest of the team’s annual western swing. But in his absence, there are more than a few capable contributors. Mike Hoffman, Dion Phaneuf, Kyle Turris, Mark Stone, Bobby Ryan, Derick Brassard, Thomas Chabot and Chris Wideman should have enough skill, smarts and chemistry to get things going.

So, what exactly is wrong?

You’re absolutely not going to find the perfectly prescribed antidote to a broken power play in this article, but there are a couple noticeable faulty attributes within the Senators’ 5-on-4 plan.

First, it’s important to identify your greatest weapons and figure out where they’re best utilized. Of the consistent cast of characters deployed on the power play, Hoffman is outright the most influential. Karlsson may be the best overall player on the ice, but it is Hoffman’s unique release, pinpoint accuracy and deceiving velocity that the team can benefit most from in this situation.

It was Hoffman, last season, that led the team with 6.68 points per 60 minutes on the power play. Karlsson was second with a rating of 5.52.

When looking at where Hoffman was scoring goals from last regular season, two spots in the offensive zone stick out.

Mike Hoffman’s goal locations for the 2016-17 regular season

The right circle is the most populated area, but the top of the left circle was also a favoured spot of the 27-year-old.

Last season, the Senators were most successful when they were able to get Hoffman the puck in both of those areas. Usually, goals would come from the right circle off a one-timer pass from Stone down low on the opposite side of the net or from Karlsson or Phaneuf at the top of the slot. As for the top of the left circle, Hoffman would swing around near the blue line, receive a pass from the quarterback, walk in and fire it with momentum.

The Senators look like they’ve slightly gotten away from using set plays on the man advantage, which is what Hoffman is best suited for. Either that or the one’s they’re carrying out right now are too plain and easily detectable.

The other main problem, that fans have no problem recognizing, is a lack of movement. But it’s not just how quick and how often Ottawa is cycling the puck around; the feet have to be active, as well.

Let’s look at a couple of scenarios.

On Tuesday night in Vancouver, Phaneuf begins with the puck at the blue line. Right now, he has two fairly decent options to start a play and create a scoring chance. Stone is open across the width of the ice and Brassard is placed on the near half boards.

But neither of the three are moving.

Phaneuf elects to throw it down to Brassard. While Ryan is skating to the corner to give him an option, Phaneuf and Stone haven’t moved an inch. The Canucks’ box on the penalty kill remains a good size and is doing a great job at taking away passing opportunities.

Brassard has now settled the puck down and has his head on a swivel, ready to make a play. But the problem remains: Phaneuf and Stone have still not budged and, by their stances, it doesn’t look like they intend to. Because of this, the Canucks’ box is still an adequate size and while they are taking away passing lanes, they’re also converging in on Brassard.

The next thing that happens is Brassard attempts to shuffle the puck down to Ryan - who seems to be his best option - but a Vancouver defender is there to intercept the pass and clear it all the way down the ice.

At times during the first three games, the Senators’ power play has actually impressed. Specifically at home against the Detroit Red Wings, it was firing on all cylinders.

Now, let’s look at a brilliant set play from that night that Ottawa also used a ton of last season.

Just like the previous sequence, Phaneuf has the puck at an advantageous position; high in the offensive zone with room to work with. However, there are numerous differences in his execution.

Instead of standing still, he has received a pass from Turris and continues to walk the blue line. Because Hoffman is beginning his route, Ryan is heading towards the low slot and Turris intends to move down the half boards, Phaneuf has three enticing options, which could all lead to a scoring chance.

Phaneuf elects to backhand it to Hoffman, who has now made the turn and is heading straight towards a shooting opportunity. Notice the space he has in front of him, the three viable options and the fact that all four sets of Detroit eyes are upon him. All the while, Turris gets a head of steam and makes a beeline for the top of the right circle.

The danger of Hoffman’s shot has drawn in nearly every Red Wings penalty killer and dismantled their once strong defensive box. With it now an irregular, skinny shape, Hoffman sees a large opening for a cross-ice pass to Turris, who is still moving his feet.

Notice how much ground Ryan has covered and, because he’s offered a deflection option the entire sequence, he has also brought three Detroit players exceedingly closer together.

In the final image, Turris now has the puck, an immense amount of free space and a couple fantastic options. The wide open shot in rather close proximity is obviously the more preferable of the two, and he does end up wiring a shot that nearly beats Jimmy Howard, but a Phaneuf one-timer is also an option.

Finally, notice how small the Senators’ have made the Red Wings’ box, almost as if it is a 5-on-3 situation for them.

Starting the season 0-for-16 on the power play is deflating, and even more so when the team’s drawn-versus-taken numbers are so impressive.

But there’s nothing a goal-scoring machine, a couple set plays and a little urgency can’t fix. If the Senators begin to utilize Hoffman like the Capitals do with Alex Ovechkin, and Boucher turns the current lackadaisical setup into a more fast-paced, determined attack, then the scoreless streak might lean the other way in a hurry.

Karlsson’s return will most definitely spark the man advantage, but there’s no need to wait.