Blast From The Past: 1993 Montreal Canadiens Penalty Kill

How the Habs shut down Gretzky

To create hockey’s future, first we must understand its past.

In June 1993 die-hard Habs fan Mathieu Turcotte watches his Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup, beating the Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 at the Forum. Goaltender Patrick Roy wins the Conn Smyth Trophy as playoff MVP. Then a riot in downtown Montreal. He remembers as if it was yesterday.

Meanwhile I’m attending kindergarten in China, unaware of such a thing as hockey.

Over the past two decades I saw the ‘93 MTL-LAK series in bits and snippets.

LA’s surprising Game-1 victory.

Marty McSorley’s illegal stick.

Eric Desjardins’ hat trick.

Roy’s wink after stoning Tomas Sandstrom.

John LeClair’s overtime heroics.

Paul DiPietro’s clutch goals in Game 5.

Can one feel nostalgia for moments one didn’t even experience first-hand?

27 years on Mathieu (assistant coach with the QMJHL’s Drummondville Voltigeurs) and I take a detour down memory lane and re-watch the Habs-Kings final to better understand what happened through coaches’ eyes.

In retrospect many aspects the Habs’ style of play appear dated:

  • On the breakout they make extensive use of rims and glass exits rather than finding the weak side of the ice to create speed and width in transition.

  • In the offensive zone they send all three forwards low and muck in the corners rather than get off the wall and initiate high OZ movement to create gaps in coverage.

  • At 5v4 their half-ice overload scheme doesn’t lead to many high-danger cross-slot passes. They typically resort to sending the puck low-to-high for their two defensemen to slap on net for tips and rebounds.

  • Even Roy’s Conn Smythe-winning, 92.9 sv% performance looks less impressive than expected. MTL33 was one of the pioneers of the modern goaltending style, but his 1993 implementation of the butterfly would seem positively archaic today.

But Mathieu and I agree: one area of the Habs’ 1993 tactics would still be highly effective today.


The 1993 MTL Penalty Kill

During the 1992-93 regular season, the Kings scored 102 powerplay goals and finished with an above-average 20.12% conversion rate. All this despite Wayne Gretzky missing half the season due to injury.

In the five-game final, however, the Habs were successful in limiting Gretzky, Luc Robitaille (63 regular-season goals) and company (Jari Kurri, Rob Blake, etc.) to just three goals on 26 opportunities (11.5% conversion).

Montreal’s smart and sound penalty-kill reflects the man who was responsible for its organization: assistant coach and Hockey Hall of Famer Jacques Laperrière.

As a pillar on the Canadiens’ defense corps between 1962 and 1974, the lanky Laperrière was one of the toughest to play against not because of his brute force but because of his ability to take away time and space with outstanding defensive skating and stick positioning.

Despite only putting up 282 points in 691 games, he was a seven-time All-Star, won the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman in 1966 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.

In the early 1990s “Lappy” created a PK scheme in his image.

PK Forecheck: 1-1-2

MTL’s 1993 PK forecheck would be very familiar to many coaches working in the game today:

  • F1 cuts the ice in half at the opposing blue line

  • F2 closes on the puck carrier near the red line

  • Both Ds force the play to the outside on the entry

Very aggressive 1-1-2 setup. In the second period of Game 5 I even saw it shift into more of a 1-3, where F1 isolated and pushed the Kings’ puck carrier toward D1 (strong-side D) to force a dump-in.

After forcing the dump-in, D2 (weak-side D) collects the puck and F2 gets on the far-side wall to make sure the rim gets out.

This is all very similar to what you see with the best PKs today.

-Mathieu

Against a well-rehearsed single- or double-drop powerplay breakout executed by today’s NHLers, this extremely aggressive approach could lead to goals against off a 3v2 entry. However at lower levels of play (minor hockey, college hockey, junior hockey and even minor pro), the 1-1-2 could be an effective alternative to the outdated 2-2 or the NHL-standard passive 1-3.

PK In-Zone: 1-1-2 Modified Box

Laperrière and his team are cognizant of the threats represented by Gretzky behind the net and by Robitaille down low on the right flank. As a result they break with the typical 2-2 Passive Box and tweak it to create better middle coverage against LAK’s set.

When the puck is above the hashmarks:

  • F1 pressures at the right half-wall but stops at the dot lane

  • F2 protects the middle of the ice

  • D1 covers the goal-line pass

  • D2 boxes out net-front

When the puck is below the hashmarks:

  • F1 & F2 collapse to net-front to provide numbers in case of a pass from Gretzky’s “office” behind the net

  • D1 & D2 stay above the goal line, protect their posts and do not try to flush Gretzky out

MTL designed their PK to protect the middle and only give Gretzky the goal line option to Robitaille. At first Robitaille is way too far toward the right corner. He ended up getting a good scoring chance when he started playing inside the dots.

Throughout the game I see the Habs mixing up their pressure. They started the game fairly passively and not chasing outside the dot lanes, but from the second period onward they became more active and put much more pressure on the half-wall, forcing the LAK player to make quicker passes.

I think a lot of their ability to adjust came from their high-end personnel. Kirk Muller, Guy Carbonneau and Mike Keane as their top-three PK forwards, Eric Desjardins and Mathieu Schneider on two different D pairings. Not to mention Roy in net. A dream for any coach!

-Mathieu

The 1993 Stanley Cup turned out to be a one-off for the “what could’ve been” 1990s Habs. But with great structure, great pressure and great players, the team’s elegant and effective PK setup makes for a lasting tactical legacy.


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