In our nonstop effort to try to cover every angle of the Men of Four Feathers, this is a new weekly feature we’re going to try out. The hope is to shed a little light on what it is the Hawks are doing from a technical standpoint, and I will try to incorporate more visual aides should this feature stay. As always, any feedback is welcome.
What We’ve Seen
- Viktor Stalberg on the Right Wing – While it’s a seemingly minor change, getting Vik on the right side of the 3rd line with his left handed shot has already yielded two game winning goals (St. Louis, Scum), and his other goal came from being on the right side as well.
Putting a left handed shot on the right wing (and vice versa), puts a forward in a far more actionable position to shoot or pass on his forehand while square to the net and the center of the ice. In his dalliances within the Top 6, Stalberg was relegated to the left side because some guys named Hossa and Kane were taking up space on those right wing slots. Being on the third line gives Stalberg the opportunity to create more offense, and he has done so. Opposing teams need to deploy their top two pairs by and large against the Bolland and Toews lines, leaving 3rd pairing bums out there against Vik, Bick, and Shaw.
Stalberg’s world-class speed is something said bums need to respect, however they don’t quite respect his playmaking ability from the position yet. So what we’re seeing is a much wider gap between the defenseman and a speeding Stalberg, as they’d rather not be beaten wide as opposed to the middle given the film everyone has of Stalberg’s shall we say “suspect” hands.
The inverse of this is why defenders are on Kane like stink on shit as soon as he crosses the stripe, as they worry about his ability to make a play towards the middle. But if Stalberg keeps exploiting that gap as he has been, it’ll force third pair pylons to waste even a split second longer in thinking about how they want to deal with him, and with Vik’s speed, that could be the split second they get torched.
- Breakout and Regroup Gap Control – While the most glaring example of this not happening was the Ray Whitney goal in Dallas wherein Patricks Kane and Sharp made a bee-line for the Dallas line as Michal Rozsival’s world imploded around him right inside the Hawk zone, by and large, we’ve seen a far shorter gap between the Hawk d-men and the forwards during breakouts.
Wingers are returning to approximately the hash marks on the faceoff circles along the boards to give defensemen a target to pass to, rather than floating 75 feet away in the neutral zone as they had been over the last two seasons. And while much credit must be given to Hammer himself for rediscovering his patience with the puck, that he now has options before blindly firing it up the boards and onto opposing tape has certainly helped him greatly.
This has not only led to far fewer extended sequences with the Hawks pinned into their own zone, but also to more speed coming through the neutral zone when attacking. As they have been in the previous years, the center on a given line should be looping through the defensive zone towards the strong (puck) side of the ice between the tops of the rings and the Hawk blue line. But where that center previously had to sprint at a 50/50 loose puck to win between himself and the man at the point, he’s now receiving a pass, be it direct or indirect, from his winger who has drawn attention to himself and allows for the center to move through center ice with speed.
Of course there will always be instances, especially with Sharp and Kane, where wingers will cheat up ice to try to get behind the play, but those chances are being taken far more judiciously during the first week.
What To Look For
- A More Aggresive PK – Though the penalty kill has but a single smudge on its otherwise perfect record so far this season, it could still stand to be more aggressive from its forwards at the top of the box in pressuring point men. The Hawks run a “passive box” formation on their standard penalty kill, which pretty much has the defensive zone quartered, with all four players as close to the intersection of the X and Y dividing axes as the opposing personnel will allow them.
The idea behind this is to maximize Corey Crawford’s angle-trusting butterfly style and mitigate his lack of lateral mobility by keeping the puck from moving through the center of the ice and keeping shots on the perimeter that he can see. However, Crow’s lack of rebound control and the defense’s unwillingness to engage physically with any man at the top of the crease is creating more chances than a successful kill should yield, regardless of any six game stretch of numbers.
The Hawks have the speed collectively and at an individual level amongst their corps of PKing forwards to be able to front a puck handler anywhere within their assigned quadrant and still be able to recover when a pass is made, it’s just a matter of starts and stops. It might cause the shifts to need to be shorter because more energy is burned, but when rolling 6-8 deep on forwards for 2 minutes, legs shouldn’t be a problem.
This caliber of pressure will force point men to change the angles of the shots taken, or force them to forgo a shot altogether, thus making Crawford’s rebound control and the forward in front of him largely immaterial. Not to mention forcing quicker decisions from the aforementioned pressured point men which can result in chances the other way, chances the likes of Toews, Hossa, Sharp, and Bolland are more than capable of capitalizing on.