Gophers In A Cage: Munn Series Preview
MSU will host the 4-0 Golden Gophers on the normal sized ice sheet of Munn Arena Thursday-Friday. (Fox Sports Detroit both nights 8:00PM)
Michigan State University has been on a run of top ten victories across sports. Football upset #8 Northwestern Saturday, the #8 ranked men’s basketball team won at #6 Duke Tuesday, and also on Saturday the Spartan hockey team upset #10 Ohio State in Columbus in OT. This week into the weekend brings more upset opportunities to East Lansing with the Spartan hockey team hosting #5 Minnesota Thursday and Friday evening, before the football team hosts (maybe?) the #4 Ohio State Buckeyes in Spartan Stadium on Saturday. This will be a jump up for the Spartans hockey squad, facing a team who hasn’t played since November 23rd, when the Gophers were completing a sweep of the aforementioned Buckeyes.
Minnesota has been just about perfect to start this season. They are 4-0, winning all their games on the ocean surface that is Mariucci Arena (ice sheet even bigger than an Olympic sheet), their power play is operating at a 25% success rate, their penalty kill is at 100%, and they have the best save percentage (.961) of any team that has played at least 4 games. So, previewing this team is less about poking holes in their play, and looking at what the Spartans need to do to stay in a game, looking to spring the upset.
The Golden Gophers roster features 14 players who have been selected in the NHL Draft. Chief among them are leading goal scorer Scott Reedy (San Jose Sharks), defensemen Ryan Johnson (Buffalo Sabres) and possibly the nation’s hottest goaltender, former Michigan Wolverine Jack LaFontaine (Carolina Hurricanes). The Spartans will not be able to line up this week and purely on talent walk out with a pair of victories, they will need discipline. Discipline both in their systems of play, and in staying the hell out of the box. In 4 games the Spartans have given their opponent 15 penalty kill opportunities. By comparison in the same amount of games, the Gophers have given opponents just 9 chances. Add to that the Spartans gave up their only 2 power play goals against in their last game (which in the previous newsletter we broke down as not necessarily structural issues), and it becomes clear this series could hinge on the Spartans minimizing shorthanded chances better than they have thus far this season.
Minnesota Power Play Design
So for taking a look at the Golden Gophers power play, I decided to use their series against a common opponent, the Ohio State Buckeyes. One caveat before we get into some analysis here, this series was at 3M Mariucci Arena, the largest ice sheet in college hockey. So what does that mean? It means when the Gophers come into Munn, this will have a more narrow sheet, as well as less space below the goal line. This means more bodies, and sticks in a limited space and less space for the Gophers to work. This could help the Spartans, yes, but I don’t think the Gophers will change what they do from a 25% power play.
Here you will see the base power play of the Gophers. They deploy an “umbrella” set up that alternates side-to-side, which plays well to their large sheet. The danger men in this look is the 1 man at the point for slapshots, and the 2 men at the half boards for one time opportunities. The net front man is there for screens, to draw a defender in, and clean up rebounds. The man off to the side of the net is mainly there as an extra pass, to help pull defenders out of position.
So we can see how the Gophers will set up once the zone is established. One thing that can really derail a power play is disruption of their zone entry. Unlike the in zone set-up zone entries are not exactly the same each time, so they can be hard to prep for. From analyzing the zone entries against the Buckeyes I would say this below is how the Gophers want to move into a zone.
The idea Minnesota wants here is a puck carrier with speed, and space entering the zone. That is why you will notice as the first carrier gets to center ice, he leaves a drop pass to the trailing man. This man is able to get strides going and actually lays it off to a guy with even more speed attacking defenders who have had to stand up straight awaiting the rush. This is a zone entry and rush popularized by the mid 2000s Red Wings under Mike Babcock, and is a very popular zone entry for a power play with offensive defensemen or a 4th forward on the blue line. The entry was easy and no chance at a turnover before entry.
Now, how did OSU prepare for this zone entry? And was it successful?
So the Buckeyes counter here by send one man into the neutral zone and lining 3 players across the blue line. This means that there are no wide lanes for the attacking player to drive past and towards the net, and means as soon as they gain entry into the zone (again especially in a more narrow Munn Arena) the player will need to dish the puck to a teammate or likely be receiving a harsh body check that will separate him from the puck. OSU actually quickly gained possession of the puck after the zone entry due to an active backcheck from their neutral zone player. When the Minnesota player drops a pass to his teammate, the backchecking player is on him right away, forcing a turnover and a zone clearance for the Buckeyes. For MSU that will likely mean a Brody Stevens, Jagger Joshua, Tommy Apap, Gianluca Esteves being the lead man and once you get beat you need to back check hard into the zone attacking the drop man.
Minnesota Power Play Goal
So now we know how Minnesota wants to set-up and how they want to enter the zone. What does it look like for Minnesota when that leads to a goal?
As we mentioned above, the danger man/hinge man is the player at the top of the umbrella. Here this play is Mike Koster, who catches the puck and has MILLEESSS of space. This allows him to start towards the net, use a shot fake to get the Ohio State defender off his skates to go down to a knee for a shot block. Since Koster had so much space, he can continue to move net front, pivot from his shot fake to the side, where he has a wide lane to get a shot off.
As the catchy caption for the image above hinted towards you, Koster has the Buckeyes in a bad spot, and it is about to get worse. When he slides to his left, it will now mean #24 from Ohio State has to decide whether he goes to tie up the Gopher forward in front at the cost of screening his goaltender further. Or he gets out of the lane or goes down as well to block the shot, bringing the Buckeyes to just 2 men on their feet, while already being depleted. Below is what happens.
#24 makes the bold choice to do uhhhhh nothing? He does stay out of the sight line of Tommy Napier. That’s good! The problem is he doesn’t tie up Bryce Brodzinski in front who is shown in the picture above getting a tip of the puck out of midair which is enough to beat Nappier. Want to see what’s great about this set-up for the Gophers? Even if Nappier makes this save, if he gives up a rebound look at the low man from the Gophers coming into the frame, behind 2 Buckeyes defenders who could jam home a rebound if there is one.
A penalty kill is designed to put you at a disadvantage. It is why discipline matters so much. One way to line up against an umbrella is a tight diamond as shown below. It makes it impossible for a pass across the slot, keeps the Gophers in one half, but does give all that space to the point man as illustrated above.
The key to the diamond is structure, you cannot run around. You have to maintain shape, keep your sticks in passing lanes and keep your head on a swivel. If you don’t you either give up goals or make your goaltender make huge saves like this.
This series, if MSU is to have positive results will not be made on the PK alone. The Spartans have been a top team all season at even strength and needs that to continue. However, if they get sloppy or undisciplined it is likely they lose the series based on a poor PK. You just can’t let a team as talented as Minnesota get extra benefits.
Date: Thursday December 3rd and Friday December 4th
Time: 8:00 PM
TV: Fox Sports Detroit (using the Fox Sports North feed. Yes Minnesota has a travelling TV set-up while FSD can’t be bothered to carry their own teams. I hate this hockey conference)