Tuesday, November 17, 2015

It may be time to focus a little more attention on the 3-on-3 overtime

Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com

The Buffalo Sabres had a glorious opportunity to tie last night’s game at one when they had a 5-on-3 for over a minute in the first period. They managed three meager shots with the “SHOOT!!!” brigade vociferously urging them to shoot the puck instead of passing so much. It didn’t work out all that well as they would manage only one more shot on their only other powerplay opportunity.

It was a rare egg laid by the NHL's fourth-best powerplay and it's 23.6% conversion rate. Going into last night's contest the Sabres have scored a powerplay goal in 10 of 14 games this season when they've had the man advantage (one game in Brooklyn vs. the NY Islanders, neither team was called for a penalty.)

The success of the powerplay is due to them practicing it almost every day. Sabres.com writer Jourdon LaBarber wrote that most times when the team practices, "the team is divided into yellow and blue sweaters. But rather than split up players by position like in years past, the significance of the colors this season is to indicate a player’s role on special teams. Those on the power play wear yellow; blue sweaters are for the penalty killers and the rest."

LaBarber points out that their success, according to the players, can be attributed to "a combination of good coaching, developed chemistry and those daily battles in practice." Time permitting, perhaps Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma can pay a little more attention to the new 3-on-3 overtime format.

The new format which has only three skaters on the ice for five minutes brings a whole new dimension to overtime and it's really not what fans had expected. Last year when teams went 4-on-4 there was plenty of skating, plenty of rushes up and down the ice for both teams. Unfortunately they didn't result in overtime goals and an inordinate number of games went to the shootout. The novelty of the shootout had grown tiresome since it's introduction in the 2005-06 season so the league thought it best to go to a new format.

The 3-on-3 overtime made it's debut last season in the AHL under the watchful eye of the NHL. Many thought that even more open ice would mean an even more exciting overtime but that wasn't the case. "It's interesting to me that the overtime game now is a game of keep-away," long-time Rochester Americans broadcaster Don Stevens told me at the mid-way point of last season. "It's puck control much more than it used to be. [Teams] would spend a lot of time passing the puck around and keeping control."

Such has been the case this season in the NHL.

After last night's loss in overtime to the San Jose Sharks, the Sabres are now 1-1 in the extra session. Forward Zemgus Girgensons was a big part of both outcomes. In Philadelphia for the Sabres first road-win of the season, he got behind all three Flyers and scored on a breakaway after a Philadelphia turnover at the Buffalo blueline and last night he got caught on the ice for a long shift. After carrying the puck into the Sharks zone on a 2-on-1 San Jose gained possession and held it for the next 1:15 before scoring on a rebound off the post behind Sabres goalie Chad Johnson.

After being on the ice for 1:30, Girgensons was physically exhausted, something that head coach Dan Bylsma alluded to as he talked to reporters post-game. "They score a goal with about a minute and fifteen seconds of offensive zone time," he explained. "It started, really at the other end. We took a shot that I wouldn't classify as a high-quality shot, gave up possession of the puck, they got it and turned it back into a long d-zone shift. They got a change with possession of the puck and got fresh legs and took advantage of that."

With only three skaters on the ice personnel and their roles are instrumental. Who to put on and/or how they match up are other factors but individual strengths in the 3-on-3 really come to the fore.

The not so "high quality shot" came from Girgensons and both he and Tyler Ennis collided behind the net on the play creating a 3-on-1, which was promptly stopped by Cody Franson. But even before then, Ennis got his pocket picked by a San Jose defender while dipsy-doodling.

One would think that the greazy Ennis and his stickhandling attributes would be a perfect match for overtime, however, he gives the puck up too much. Girgensons with his speed and two-way acumen is perfect for the overtime but as of right now he's not making the proper decision on offense. Ryan O'Reilly is of the same ilk but has leaned towards trying to do to much on his own with ill-advised shots. Jack Eichel is great and at his finest when he's got a head of steam going up ice. It's there where he needs support and it won't come from a player who can't keep up.

Puck smarts and shooting accuracy might be the most important attributes in over time, at least from two-thirds the trio. Players like Sam Reinhart and Brian Gionta might not be the greatest skaters, but their extremely smart in all zones with Reinhart having excellent vision and passing abilities.

Rasmus Ristolainen on defense provides speed, two-way acumen and a good shot that he can get on net. Mark Pysyk is the same way. What they want to avoid is the wind-up and a shot sailing wide that ricochets off the boards and catches the two forwards deep. Yeah, the Al Macinnis slapshot is powerful, but the end result of a missed shot like that in overtime is 2-on-1 or even 2-on-0 headed the other way.

Just some food for thought.

The Sabres have been working on a array of things and the powerplay is indicative of how well their learning. Once Bylsma feels comfortable enough with the powerplay to start focusing upon other areas, Buffalo should be a more complete team. But for now, I can live with a loser-point and a No. 4-ranked powerplay.

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