Today I thought I would talk about the differences I noticed between last year’s power play and the one that faltered for much of the time this season. As I mentioned yesterday, this years Sabres team boasted a highly skilled roster which ought to have made goal scoring on the PP a common occurrence. As we all witnessed, that was not the case. Why not?
In 2005 the Sabres did an excellent job using their speed when entering the zone. It forced opposing defenders to back off and allowed skilled hands like Briere and Connolly set up shop. This season the speed factor was negated by teams making the adjustment of stacking four players across the blue line. In order to set up the Sabres had to hope for a defensive breakdown on the part of their adversaries or play the deadly game of “dump and chase.” In 2005 I noticed that the Sabres rarely had to dump the puck in, they approached the blue line with such speed that the opposition simply backed off and set up in the traditional box PK formation. Also, it appears that the anxiety of getting another penalty provoked fear among opposing defensemen. They tended to back off from physical contact, no doubt worried of the potential of receiving one of the mediocre obstruction calls that the Sabres were rewarded with all too often in 05. In 06 one notices immediately the willingness of defenders to lay the crunch on players like Briere, Pomminville, Roy, Drury….ect. Only Afinogenov proved to have success stick handling over the blue line on any kind of consistent basis ( and when he didn’t get it in we usually witnessed a two on one going the other way! ) All this leads to the main point here, the Sabres as the season progressed began to lack confidence on the PP and resorted to “simplicity” in order to gain any kind of offensive production. This strategy saw Sabre players simply stand still on the PP. Nobody moved, nobody anticipated passes or one timers to the point where it was the opposing team QB’ing the show.
Flash back to 2005. What is the one thing that strikes a viewer right away? Movement on the PP. The Sabres were a handful in the offensive zone, players were constantly moving around forcing defenders to make choices, often the wrong ones. No better examples can be found then the goals Drury and Dumont were to collect that year. Dumont was a master of circling down low before he got the puck to pick up forward momentum. The point man would then telegraph the pass to Dumont while he was moving forcing the defender to either lunge in and hope to break up the pass or back off and try and block Dumont’s shot, as Dumont got the puck and the opposing team tried to close the gap he had generated he quickly shuffled the puck over to Drury who was wide open at the side of the net. Movement forced the opposing D to make a hard choice, they were on their heals, not the other way around as we witnessed in 06. Another example can be found in the way the Sabres treated their slot player. The player in front of the net never stood still. If the Sabres went for a point shot the slot player crashed the net, if the Sabres threw the puck down low the middle man shifted to the high slot, usually without the D noticing, allowing Briere or Connolly to send a pass to the high slot unmolested. Pomminville, Drury, Connolly and even Briere himself cashed in on this play many times in 05. Their shots from the high slot were deadly accurate and if the D happened to recover there was always the play down low as mentioned earlier or a one-timer opportunity from the point. Movement was the key!
Why no movement this season? I really believe that opposing teams did a fantastic job scouting the Sabres. They did the two things that they did not do in 05; they stacked the blue line and put tremendous pressure on our players when we did finally manage to set up shop. That being said, the Sabres answer to this new tactic was less than gratifying. Instead of drawing up quick plays and passes that could exploit the aggressive D, the Sabres opted to simply slow things down and just shoot it form the point. How predictable things became! Teams dared the Sabres to make the easiest move available and then beat them to the puck. Where was the creativity? Where was the movement? Disorganized and pathetic, the Sabres PP looked like a Pee Wee House hockey team at times. The lack of any kind of strategy seems to me to indicate that the coaches gave the Sabres one play and told them to use their talent and skill to create amongst themselves. ( I remember Lindy Ruff commenting on San Jose’s PP, saying that he noticed that they had no set plays. At the time San Jose had the # 1 PP, I wonder if he used this as a guide for his own team? ) For the second PP unit this was feasible. After all, Roy, Vanek and Afinogenov play together on a line, thus they have some chemistry to “add-lib” down low. Drury, Briere, Connolly and Zubrus did not have this connection and thus looked utterly confused as to the whereabouts of the other players. They could not invent on the fly. Was this the case? Is this another example of Sabres brass over-estimating the team’s skill over other intangibles? I say yes!