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NKB’s Notebook: Breakouts, the Penalty Kill, and ZUUUUUUB

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Some stray tactical thoughts from the week that was

NHL: Player Headshots 2021 Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Ottawa Senators too good? At this point you have to ask the question.

But seriously, there have been a lot more positives to write about these last couple of weeks. Besides the wins, the team has been playing much better hockey in virtually every facet. Here are a few tactical developments that have jumped out at me recently:

  • I wouldn’t say that this is something that I’ve only noticed in the last week, but there is an obvious difference in how the Sens’ defense group has been breaking out the puck versus what was happening in the early part of the season. Part of this is personnel-related, Artem Zub and Erik Brännström are much better puck movers than Josh Brown and Braydon Coburn, but I believe there’s also an element of tactical change. There’s a newfound patience once the team has possession, and the way that this most clearly manifests itself is the team’s willingness to go backwards before going forwards. Whereas early on there seemed to be a very strict North-South, get it up and get it out mentality, I’ve been impressed with how well the defenders have moved the puck from side to side to open clearer passing lanes. The end result is a better transition game and more room for their skilled forwards to work; if you’ve liked Drake Batherson and Tim Stützle’s chemistry off the rush, remember it’s all possible because they’re reliably getting the puck in stride as they exit the zone.
  • In the second edition of this feature, I had a segment about the Sens’ struggles on the penalty kill. In what wasn’t exactly a flattering analysis, I wrote:

The Sens play a fairly passive box by NHL standards, and they rely on their four man unit maintaining strong cohesion to prevent passes through the seams. They’re content to let the other team move the puck around the outside.

I’m happy to report that in the intervening time, the Sens have radically revamped their approach to killing penalties. Long gone are the days of a passive, static four-man box that’s happy to concede passes without mustering any pressure. I’ve also been particularly impressed with the team’s willingness to push the attack if the two forwards are able to exit the zone with control. Virtually every team in the NHL uses a four forward, one defenseman alignment on the power play these days, which means that a 2v2 is actually more like a 2v1.5 when the Sens’ penalty killers go on the offensive. It’s been a real revelation after what was an absolutely catastrophic start to the year. Now if only Connor Brown and Chris Tierney could convert a few of their chances...

  • The last thing that I wanted to comment on was Artem Zub’s absolutely stellar gap control through the neutral zone. Zub’s scoring has slowed a bit since his torrid start, but he’s continued to play at a high level and his successful pairing with Mike Reilly is one of the biggest factors driving the Sens’ improved play. Zub doesn’t always deliver bone-crunching hits, but almost never gets beaten cleanly through the neutral zone in no small part because he maintains such a tight gap with the opposing team’s forwards. There have been countless times this season where he’s snuffed out an attack by knocking the puck off the stick of the attacking forward just a second after they received it in the first place. And if the forward does manage to handle the puck cleanly, Zub has demonstrated that he skates well enough and is strong enough to finish his check with control to help recover the puck. In an earlier piece about Zub’s hot start to the year, I wondered: what do the Sens really have in Zub? Well, the more we see him, the more it’s starting to seem like Ottawa might have a real gem on its hands.