BROSSARD, Que.—Max Pacioretty wouldn’t explain what he meant when he said that the Montreal Canadiens executed a power-play breakout Tuesday night against the Calgary Flames that has never before been attempted in the NHL.
Artturi Lehkonen, who was sitting across the room, laughed before spilling the beans.
“The Flying V,” the Finnish forward said, referring to a tactic devised by fictional coach Gordon Bombay, played by Emilio Estevez, in the 1992 film The Mighty Ducks.
It wasn’t quite as deliberate or dramatic as the scene in the movie, but when Pacioretty, Lehkonen and Alexander Radulov dropped below the hash marks of the faceoff circles in their own zone before joining defencemen Shea Weber and Nathan Beaulieu in a tight formation on a second-period power-play rush, it was an enormous departure from the tactics the Canadiens have habitually employed this season.
“Kirkie planned it out,” said Lehkonen.
He was talking about associate coach Kirk Muller, who was brought in over the summer specifically for this reason—to breathe some life into a power play that had been in a death spiral over the last three seasons and was operating at a paltry 16 per cent efficiency.
(And, with his youthful appearance and dirty blonde hair, you could argue he even bears a slight resemblance to Estevez.)
Turning to something like ‘The Flying V’ is just one example of the creative approach Muller has taken to get the job done. So far, despite some rough patches, he’s had great success. And though he joked before the beginning of the season that the key to a good power play is simply having good players, we’d posit that his insistence on constant change might be a bigger factor.
It’s hard to deny, when you consider that the Canadiens are operating the NHL’s third-best power play (23.3 per cent), while key players like centre Alex Galchenyuk and defenceman Andrei Markov have each missed at least 18 games.
Muller’s most recent tweak to the breakout, which typically has a defenceman carrying the puck up the ice and a winger floating at the opposing blue line as a stretch-pass option, shows how unwilling he is to be complacent. He made the adjustment after the Canadiens had scored on a remarkable 10 of 28 attempts in the 10 games leading up to Tuesday’s 5-1 win over Calgary.
A good video session for the Flames, who only had game-tape to rely on, wouldn’t have revealed the change Muller had made. That’s why two perfectly executed breakouts, which led to two clean zone entries, resulted in two power-play goals on four attempts.
“We want to keep guys thinking,” said Beaulieu. “Defencemen do such a good job on the penalty kill of closing gaps and holding lines now, so trying to bring guys back and bring them with speed is a way to throw a curveball.
“We want to surprise teams, we don’t want them to be able to know what we’re doing.”
Another way Muller has been helping the Canadiens surprise teams is by getting them to take the right shot instead of shooting from everywhere, which helps explain why the team ranks 29th overall in shots on the power play according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com.
“Plays just die when we just shoot the puck from everywhere,” said Pacioretty. “If you want to shoot the puck from everywhere, you have to have all rebound angles covered. I don’t think our power play is set up really to have that.”
Pacioretty also says that while going with what’s conventional—like depending on Weber’s big point-shot and a screen in front of the opposing goaltender—can work, it can also get stale in a hurry.
“When you have all five guys involved and on the same page, that’s the biggest thing,” said Pacioretty. “I think the old school, just blast away and keep a guy in front…well, you’re playing four-on-four then. Especially with teams knowing that Weber has a bomb, they’re putting a guy in his pocket and then you’re playing three-on-three on half the ice where there’s not many plays to be made.”
Think outside the box and—voila—you’ll have a better chance of sustaining a high success rate with the man advantage.
According to Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien, there’s another benefit to all the tweaking Muller’s doing from game to game.
“The more we go through the season I think it’s important that the players feel really comfortable about making the changes, and we work on stuff so when you get to the end of the year we’re able to make that adjustment really quick,” said Therrien.
So you can expect Muller and the Canadiens to keep expanding their playbook, even if it means going through the hockey-movie archive to find something new.