Started with the drop pass, Avalanche power play will need to be difference against Vegas – The Denver Post
When the Avalanche sends out its power-play personnel Sunday night against the Vegas Golden Knights, there will be a sight as familiar as a Nathan MacKinnon one-timer or a Gabe Landeskog deflection: The drop pass.
Ever since coach Jared Bednar was on the staff of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate in Springfield, Mass., nearly a decade ago, using the neutral-zone-to-own-zone drop pass to start a power-play rush has been a staple.
“It’s tough to defend when you do it right and you’re able to buy some space,” Bednar said. “It can be difficult to defend your o-zone entries and possession. The key is to not just gain the zone, but gain the outlet pass or set-up pass to get you full possession if you can’t attack on the rush.”
The Avalanche’s goal: Reach the opponent’s blue line with possession and pace.
“The point is to back off the penalty killers so they’re standing still when a guy is coming at you with speed,” said former NHL player Dominic Moore, who is now an analyst for NBC. “A lot of the teams in the league are trying to do some form of it. The Avs are one of the teams that do it well for the most part.”
The Avalanche power play started fast against St. Louis (3-of-5 in Games 1-2) but ended slow — five consecutive failed chances before two empty-net power-play goals to sweep the series.
“It’s definitely easy stuff to tighten up, but overall (6-of-12), I felt we did a relatively good job,” defenseman Cale Makar said.
It will be difficult to do a good job against the Knights.
Vegas had the NHL’s best penalty kill in the regular season, allowing only 19 power-play goals in 144 chances (86.8%). In their first-round series win over Minnesota, the Knights killed nine of 11 penalties (81.8%).
The Avalanche’s power play was disabled against the Knights in eight regular-season matches — 1-for-21 (4.8%) compared to 46-of-186 (24.7%) against the rest of the West Division. Even-strength work allowed the Avs to split those eight games.
The Avs’ first-round power-play work against St. Louis may provide a clue to their second-round strategy.
The first 10 power-play opportunities were analyzed (its last two came against St. Louis’ empty net). The Avalanche had 27 zone entries.
- It used the drop pass 14 times, most often to MacKinnon (first unit) and Andre Burakovsky (second unit).
- The defensemen, usually Makar or Devon Toews, delivered the initial pass to the right wing and left wing three and four times, respectively.
- The Avs attempted the straight carry-into-zone strategy four times.
- It had one icing call (missed pass) and neutral zone turnover apiece.
The Blues likely forced the Avs out of using the drop pass because they put one of their forwards higher up-ice. That led to Makar and Toews starting the entry with a pass to either flank.
“Their pressure through the neutral zone was really good,” Burakovsky said. “It was extremely hard to find ice to skate in.”
Before the playoffs, Moore and former NHL defenseman Bret Hedican said an aggressive approach is best against the Avalanche.
“As a penalty killer, you want to gain ice back and start picking up momentum to steer MacKinnon one way or the other,” Hedican said.
Said Moore: “I would get up the ice instead of backing off. Backing off is usually a recipe for failure.”
But is the drop pass an automatic key to success?
“Some teams end up killing off some of their power-play time by doing it,” Moore said. “The teams that do it well get up the ice in a hurry and then create space. It’s effective when you have guys as mobile as the Avs.”
MacKinnon, one of the NHL’s best skaters, is the ideal player to receive the drop pass.
“What MacKinnon does so well is he attacks straight at you so you can’t take an angle at him and then he has the ability with speed to make the pass to one of his guys on the (wings),” said Hedican, who now works on the San Jose Sharks’ broadcasts. “His brain processor is so good, he can attack with speed and is such a good timing passer, it’s a very difficult thing to stop.”
The Knights had great success containing the Avs’ power play. Speaking generally, Bednar said the Avalanche have developed “work-arounds” to attack opponents, but when the drop pass is used, the key is for MacKinnon and Burakovsky to gain the zone before a lateral pass; the dump-and-chase isn’t a part of the plan.
MacKinnon and Burakovsky dashing through the neutral zone at high speed provides two choices for a defenseman: Retreat or stand flat-skated at the blue line. Either way allows the Avalanche a zone entry. Because of the Avs’ skill level, the drop pass makes sense.
“We’ve built in some different options off that drop and when you have players like Nate and Burakovsky, guys who can skate and maneuver through the neutral zone (you can),” Bednar said. “Obviously, Nate is elite at it so when you have a player like that, you want it in his hands and want it in his hands with space. The drop allows you to do that.”
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