On Thursday on day two of the World Junior Championships, it initially looked like Canada was going to dominate Switzerland the same way they dominated Denmark. Cody Glass opened the scoring just 36 seconds into the game.
Switzerland did not go away quietly, however, and it was thanks to their power play. They went 2-for-4 with the man advantage, their only two goals in a 3-2 loss.
It wasn’t just that Switzerland scored on the power play, but the manner in which they scored that caused a stir. The Swiss used an unusual tactic on the power play, setting up below the goal line to create a fantastic scoring chance between the hashmarks for Philipp Kurashev.
Ray Ferraro, one of the best colour commentators in the business, broke it down on the TSN broadcast.
Philipp Kurashev (@quebec_remparts) scores on the power play, and the Swiss have tied things up at 1-1 against Canada!#WorldJuniors #REPRESENT pic.twitter.com/hwy2XtQ5os— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 28, 2018
As Ferraro puts it, the Swiss invert their power play. Most power plays are set up from the point with a power play quarterback defenceman, or on the half-wall with a playmaking centre. With both of those set ups, most puck movement is around the top of the zone, trying to create east-west passes for scoring chances.
The Swiss frequently move the puck behind the net instead, with two forwards below the goal line. This leads to north-south passes from below the goal line, like the pass that set up Kurashev’s first goal.
While this is an atypical setup, it should look familiar to Canucks fans. It may not be the Canucks’ go-to tactic on the power play, but they have experimented with setting up below the goal line over the past month. It led to one memorable goal for Alex Edler against the Edmonton Oilers on December 16th.
After Bo Horvat won the faceoff, he and Brock Boeser immediately moved below the goal line. Pettersson sent the puck down to Horvat, who moved it across to Boeser, and he set up Edler for the one-timer from the top of the left faceoff circle.
The unusual puck movement gave Edler the space to take the shot and a clear shooting lane, while forcing Mikko Koskinen to move significantly prior to the shot, making it tough for him to get set.
There’s a strong argument to be made that the Canucks should use this power play tactic more often as it has several benefits over a more typical set up.
That would be the assertion made by Ryan Kent Stimson. His recently-published book, Tape to Space: Redefining Modern Hockey Tactics, uses analytics in an innovative way to advise coaches on optimal systems and tactics, including on the power play. He wrote specifically about setting up below the goal line on the power play in an article on The Coaches Site.
Stimson’s work with analytics hasn’t focussed on shot-based metrics like corsi, fenwick, or scoring chances, but by analysing strategies and finding the most efficient methods of scoring. Some of the most dangerous passing sequences are passes that originate from below the goal line.
There are multiple reasons for this. First, goaltenders can’t stand these types of plays. Passes behind the net force goaltenders to keep moving from post to post, while constantly having to turn their heads to pick up the puck, as they lose sight of it as it goes behind them. That makes puck tracking more difficult. Then, when passes come out front, a goaltender has to quickly move out to cut off the angle and that movement can create gaps that a sniper can exploit.
It’s also a difficult play for a penalty kill to defend. The net itself helps to protect the puck from the penalty kill, creating a passing lane that can’t be defended without sending a penalty killer behind the net, which opens up space in front of the net. This allows the power play to move the puck from side to side without risk of a penalty killer disrupting the pass and clearing the zone.
Keeping the puck down low also minimizes the risk of the puck escaping the zone or of shorthanded chances. When the puck is near the blue line, as it typically is with most power play setups, there is always a chance of a defenceman mishandling the puck, forcing the power play to regroup in the neutral zone, or worse, giving up a shorthanded chance the other way. If a player misses a pass below the goal line, the power play has a better chance of recovering the puck and keeping it in the offensive zone.
Most importantly, with the puck down low below the goal line, the penalty kill has to turn their backs to three players, all of whom can move into scoring position behind them. In a typical power play set up, a penalty killer can usually keep at least three to four members of the power play in front of him and shoulder check to keep an eye on the other one or two. If the power play sets up below the goal line, more members of the power play are out of sight, which can also keep them out of mind.
We can see how this works in the goal by Switzerland as well as Edler’s goal against the Oilers. The Canadian penalty kill completely lost sight of Kurashev as they tracked the puck behind the net and he was able to walk right into the most dangerous area on the ice for a one-timer.
Likewise, the Oilers penalty kill had no idea where Edler was before he stepped into his one-timer. As they tracked the pass from Horvat to Boeser, they may have expected Edler to stay central: instead, he had already moved to the left side of the ice for the pass from Boeser.
This is just one look that the Canucks power play has used, as they usually stick with a standard 1-3-1 formation, typically with Boeser on the left side and Pettersson on the right. That gives them two great shooting options, but they frequently struggle to get passes through the penalty kill box to create chances for those shooting options. Setting up below the goal line can create more open passing lanes to set up those chances.
While varying their power play setups can make it harder for penalty kills to prepare for games against the Canucks, I would like to see them try to set up below the goal line a little more often. Penalty kills are used to defending against a 1-3-1 formation; they’re much less used to defending against passes from below the goal line.