Monday, January 21, 2013

Pens Win! A Story in Two Passes

The Pens came to MSG ready to play, and they rolled over the Rangers before letting in a couple of garbage time goals to make the score interesting in the third period. Playing in the limelight of New York City, the setting of Home Alone 2, seemed to bring out the best in some of the Penguins' big name players.  Malkin assisted on three of the Penguins' six goals, and more unexpectedly played really well in the defensive zone.  James Neal continued his assault on opposing goaltenders with a couple of goals.  Letang was in attack mode all night, keeping the Rangers on their heels for much of the game, and eventually potting the empty-netter to put the cherry on top of the sundae.  Tomas Vokoun showed the Pens what they can expect when Flower is on the bench, shutting the door whenever the Rangers tried to show up.  Orpik uncorked a couple of big open-ice hits, and he and Paul Martin were protecting our house like the Wet Bandits were trying to break in.  And, of course, Broadway Joe Vitale (h/t to The Pensblog) took to Manhattan like a fish to water, and showed Eric Tangradi what it looks like to fight for a roster spot.

In lieu of a full recap, I want to look at two plays that helped break open this game, passes that utilized the element of surprise to circumvent the Rangers' zone-clogging defense, much like Kevin McCallister used the element of surprise to thwart his would-be assailants.

The first was Simon Despres' carom pass to Vitale to set up the Penguins' second goal.  It was an unexpected pass from a young defenseman, and turned an innocuous neutral zone possession into a scoring opportunity.  Let's see how it happened, shall we?

Click to Enlarge

In the image above, Despres has received a cross-ice pass from Deryk Engelland (#5).  The Rangers are in a defensive formation, all five players on the New York side of the ice.  With their forwards lined up across the neutral zone, logic dictates that Despres either chip the puck into the Rangers zone and let the forwards chase, or pass it to Joe Vitale (#46), swooping across the redline, at center ice so he can dump it in.

Instead, Despres holds onto the puck, drawing two Rangers forwards toward him and away from their net, as you can see above.  With Matt Cooke out of frame at the far blue line, and Tyler Kennedy at the bottom of the frame ready to drive down the center of the ice, the Penguins have compromised the Rangers' defensive set, and they have the opportunity to take advantage of an imbalance on the ice.  But that only happens if Despres can get the puck past the forecheckers to his forwards.  In the freeze frame above, Despres is "showing" the pass to Vitale, and the Rangers' Jim Halpert, er, Jeff Halpern is in a great position to deny it, and possibly turn the play into a 2-on-1 with Mike Rupp on his left.

But Despres doesn't make the expected pass.  He freezes Halpern (#15) and Chris Kreider (#20) by faking that pass, then opening up to pass the puck off the boards, just as Vitale is breaking toward the blue line.  Halpern, skating directly at Despres, has no play on the puck.  Kreider, reeled in by Despres' fake, is standing still as Vitale sneaks behind him.  He stabs at the puck with his stick, but it is just outside of his reach.

You can see above that the puck is placed perfectly to elude Kreider and hit Vitale in stride.  Despres pass here is not an easy one, particularly for a young player in an unfamiliar building.  It's a billiards shot, essentially: get the angle wrong, and the puck is bouncing directly to Kreider; get the angle right, and you get the above still.  Vitale's got the puck and a full head of steam, Kennedy and Cooke are following him across the blue line, and suddenly you've got a 3-on-2.  When Rangers defenseman Stu Bickel, who the Pens made look silly on a few occassions last night, misjudges Vitale's speed and tries to stand him up along the half boards, Vitale slips the check and heads for the net, with the Pens' now on an attenuated 3-on-1, as shown here:

Vitale gets the puck to the next, and Kennedy puts home the rebound to break the tie.  Vitale's speed and situational awareness was on full display, but it was Despres' outlet pass that made this happen.  Like a quarterback play-faking to freeze the secondary, Despres tips the on-ice balance in Pittsburgh's favor, while the Rangers' defense scrambles to recover.  Here's the play in real time:

The second unexpected pass came from Neal, in his new capacity as point-man on the power play, with the Pens up 3-1.  Clearing the puck into the Pens' zone at the halfway point of the penalty (after one of many uncharacteristic Crosby turnovers), the Rangers send three of their four penalty killers to the bench for a change.  As I mentioned in my post detailing my reservations about Neal playing the point, he is not known as a speed demon or a distributor, and as he chases the puck into his own zone, the Rangers certainly don't seem to think that Neal poses an urgent threat.

It isn't difficult to understand why the Rangers feel they have time to make a change.  As this freeze frame shows, the three Rangers are on their way to the bench while the three Penguin forwards are deep in the Ranger zone.  You can see Neal looking over his left shoulder to see the penalty killers calling for replacements.  He picks up his speed, then looks back over his right shoulder to see nothing but open ice:

That quick backward glance tells him everything he needs to know, and he turns back to the puck, corrals it, spins, and whips a pass all in one motion.  The Rangers jumping over the board sense something up, but they've got a lot of ice to cover.

Now, aggressive outlet passes are one of the hallmarks of the Penguins' offence, but James Neal is an unlikely source for one, and for one of such precision.  What's amazing is the economy of motion; he doesn't waste a single moment, or a single movement, in moving the puck up the ice.  And when he does send it, it isn't to Letang at the redline, which would certainly have been the lower risk/lower reward option, and the option most comfortable for someone playing out of position as Neal is.  Instead, he rockets the puck all the way to Chris Kunitz on the far blue line, a 20-yard, no-look, tape-to-tape bomb.  It's downright Zubovian.  Kunitz walks the puck into the Rangers' zone, as Dupuis races to the net, with the new penalty killer busting ass after him, leaving Malkin all alone across the ice...

...which is a bad thing for New York.  Kunitz finds Malkin, who skates toward the goal.  The defenseman on Dupuis is forced to give up his man to try and contain Malkin and ends up in no-man's-land.  Malkin threads the puck past him to Dupuis for the tap-in.  It was a beautiful look by Geno, but all made possible by Neal's outlet, which in a split-second jumpstarted a stalling power play.  Here's video of what ended up as the winning goal:

Now's the part where I remind you that we are only two games into the season.  Two wins against our biggest division rivals, yes, but only two games.  Things won't always be this good.  But if we are going to look at this game for signs of encouragement, these passes show more than just an offence clicking on all cylinders to start the campaign.  They show two key players taking on new roles, and yielding results: Despres as part of our regular third defensive pairing, Neal as power play quarterback.  Both players evidence tremendous recognition of what is going on around them, and what they need to do to take advantage.  In Despres' case, it takes a subtle fake and a little patience, as well as a perfect angle off the boards.  In Neal's case, it takes impatience and a willingness to make a difficult pass without hesitation to pounce on a mistake by the opposition.  No doubt, there will growing pains with both players as the acclimate to their new responsibilities, but Pens fans should be encouraged by these two high-degree-of-difficulty passes, and even more so by the fact that they came against the Rangers, a team that isn't going to allow you the easy pass for a scoring chance.

Well, sometimes they'll allow you the easy pass for a scoring chance:

In my expert analysis, if you leave Neal alone in front of the net so that you can send two defenders to deny a pass from Malkin to Eric Tangradi - who has displayed absolutely no offensive aptitude, but I'm sure is absolutely deadly from the corner boards - it might come back to bite you.  What do you think, Rangers coach John Tortorella?

Yeah, me too.  Tough break, but on the bright side, I'm sure Richard Gere will do you justice in the film adaptation of Garbage-Time Superstar: The Rick Nash Story.

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