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NKB’s Notebook: Power Play Setup, Defending Leads, Brännström and more

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Lots of positives to be had from Sunday night’s victory over Montreal

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Normally when I’m writing this feature, I try to spread my observations across as many of the week’s games as possible but this week I found that there was just so much more from the Sunday game against the Montreal Canadiens to write about from a tactical perspective. In a lot of ways, it was one of the Sens’ best games of the year — especially considering they were without Thomas Chabot. You may recall how that went on Thursday against the Maple Leafs.

  • As you may be aware, it’s been a long time since the Ottawa Senators scored a power play goal. At the end of the day, it’s a results-oriented business: did you score it or didn’t you? That being said, there were a lot of positives to be taken from Ottawa’s play with the man-advantage on Sunday. Previously, the Sens’ strategy had been to funnel pucks up top, and then to let the player at the top of the diamond distribute the puck for a one-timer. If that didn’t work, the back-up plan was mostly to get the puck through to the net and hope that Brady Tkachuk collected the rebound. On Sunday, one of the biggest changes was the focus on moving the puck from the sideboards to the area beneath the goal line, which then led into a touch pass to the slot. Both Tkachuk and Tim Stützle found Evgenii Dadonov on high-low-slot plays to create excellent scoring opportunities. This kind of tic-tac-toe passing also opens up lanes through the seams — such as the one that Stützle took advantage of to find Drake Batherson on the backdoor for what should have been a tap-in goal. The Sens were of course a bit limited from a personnel perspective with Chabot out, but they should really consider continuing this tactical change even upon his return.
  • Speaking of Sunday’s game, one other very visible and welcome development was Erik Brännström’s growing confidence skating the puck. I’ve already written about his ability to distribute passes in this very column, but I was impressed by just how well he was skating to evade forecheckers. There have been concerns about his skating in the past, as in: was it good enough to make up for his lack of size? I’ve always thought that was somewhat unfair framing of the question, but if Brännström’s skating is getting to the point where he can just skate away from forecheckers, then that would be a very welcome development.
  • Although the Sens ultimately couldn’t hold the lead Sunday night, I was actually happy with how they played for most of that final frame while they were ahead. One of the issues plaguing the team for the last few years has been their passive play in the final stanza when ahead; far too many times the Sens have been content to park the bus and hope they could withstand the barrage. On Sunday, I thought they did a great job of really pushing back against the Habs’ attack. The tying goal was the result of one player making an egregiously poor defensive read, it was not from a lack of defensive structure or the dam breaking. That was a big positive to me.
  • And lastly, one stray observation from the games against the Toronto Maple Leafs: since the departure of Jean-Gabriel Pageau, the Sens are without a true checking line. Smith has tried a couple of times to cobble one together, but to no avail. Smith clearly trusts Connor Brown in almost any defensive role, so for some of the series against Toronto he tried to get what was the Tkachuk-Tierney-Brown line out against Auston Matthews’ line as much as he could. Obviously that didn’t go well. I’m not a firm believer that you absolutely need a designated checking line to be successful, but having one to roll out against an opponent’s most dangerous trio can’t hurt. As more of the prospects progress through the system, it will be interesting to see if anyone grabs that mantle.