What goes into defending a 4-on-3 penalty kill in overtime?

The Sabres successfully killed an overtime penalty on Monday against Montreal

Buffalo, N.Y. (WGR 550) – During the overtime period against the Montreal Canadiens on Monday night, Buffalo Sabres forward Peyton Krebs got called for a cross-checking penalty that was just a brutal call.

The body check on Canadiens center Kirby Dach was perfectly legal, but Buffalo had to kill off a 4-on-3 power play.

Those don’t come up very often, and are rarely practiced. The Sabres did a terrific job killing it, but it did take two minutes away from the team getting a chance to score in overtime.

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Sabres head coach Don Granato says since you don’t get that many practice reps with it, he uses more experienced players on that kill. He says there, of course, are different strategies to defending a 4-on-3 man advantage.

“You’re looking at shot blocking guys, Mattias Samuelsson is our best shot blocking defenseman and you don’t have him," said Granato following Tuesday's practice. "So 'Boosh' [Ilya Lyubushkin] played a pretty good role in that, and [Henri] Jokiharju doesn’t do a bad job at that.”

Samuelsson is out due to injury and would normally be on the penalty kill, so Lyubushkin and Rasmus Dahlin did most of it.

"There’s not a lot of options that you can do," said Lyubushkin after Tuesday's practice. "You try to control the passing lanes, make a blocked shot and control the rebound.

“We also try to stay more tight because there’s only three of us.”

You’d like to block shots on any penalty kill, but Lyubushkin feels it’s harder on a 4-on-3 disadvantage, because it's faster and players can’t read it as well as they maybe can during a 5-on-4 kill.

"On 4-on-3, he can shoot and he can pass. You have to stay at the net to protect it," Lyubushkin said.

Dahlin plays the game on his toes, meaning he’s aggressive in his thinking. He says that has to be dialed back when killing in overtime.

"The difference is you can’t be as aggressive as you can be on 5-on-4," Dahlin said. "You’ve got to take away angles and you’ve got to stay closer to the net.”

Blocked shots become a problem for Dahlin too during a 4-on-3.

"If you’re trying to block it, you leave a big area open, so you can’t really go down on one knee, because you’ve got to recover back to the net," Dahlin said.

Zemgus Girgensons and Alex Tuch take turns at the top of a 4-on-3 penalty kill. Girgensons says it’s a totally different mindset.

"They get quality looks right away, so it becomes taking away the highest danger shot, and you rely on your goalie a lot," he said.

Under Granato, Tuch has become a more complete player, which has included being on the penalty kill.

"As a forward, you can’t let them get any free one-timers from the top, because it’s really hard to pressure and you have to be really patient, more so than on a normal penalty kill," Tuch said.

I also wondered about how a goaltender sees it during a penalty kill and sure enough, Eric Comrie says things change for him when he's working against an opposing team's power play in overtime.

"On the 4-on-3, the players can really work it around," Comrie said. "I know my brother [Mike] always said they actually preferred 4-on-3s to 5-on-3s, because they felt there were less guys out there, so they were more concise on what they’re going to do.

"In overtime, the P.K. has to be so tight and so condensed that you can’t really be too aggressive to get out there, because if you lose a guy, it’s almost a guaranteed goal on a 4-on-3."

Comrie says he’s able to see the puck OK because there are fewer players on the ice, but adds there are other problems to contend with.

"It’s more East/West, so you can’t take as much ice. You’ve got to be a little bit more conservative in your depth, which opens up the shot, because you have to be quick to get back door. It’s a double whammy," Comrie explained. "You’ve got the guy open down the slot who has a great look at the net, but you can’t really be aggressive, because you have to be conscious of your back door play. That’s the hardest thing."

Now let’s move to the overtime power play. Granato says there are many details to it.

"When you take a shot, are you able to converge underneath the penalty killers? It’s the timing," he said. "It’s also are you going to look for seams and manipulate the penalty killers for more of an open look?"

Common sense says with fewer players on the ice, it helps the power play. Granato says the reality is the power play actually shrinks the zone.

"Tactically, you want them to do that. You don’t want to be caught out, and in both 4-on-3 and 5-on-4, it can be broken down to who gets impatient first," he said. "If the penalty kill gets impatient, they’ll move further from the net front and open up more seams. If the penalty kill holds back and the power play gets impatient, and they start skating towards the penalty kill. Advantage: Penalty kill."

Dahlin and Owen Power quarterback to two power play units. Dahlin says 4-on-3 advantages needs patience.

"You can’t really force it," he said. "You will make the P.K. tired by passing around the puck, and eventually you will find that shooting opportunity. I just think puck tempo and shooting is the main thing.”

Dahlin likes the extra ice out there, but he says it also can play against you in these situations.

"It does help, but it can also be confusing, because you have so much space and you can not use it well," Dahlin said. "But I do find it’s way better, because you can fake and you shoot, and you have more time to do all the small things that makes the P.K. question itself."

Tuch enjoys it, because he feels you get more space with less defenders also knowing that it’s more controlled.

Devon Levi got his first NHL practice on Tuesday and got plenty of action because he had his own net.

Granato says veteran Craig Anderson is nursing an injury, but he’s very close to being back in practice.

Tage Thompson and Samuelsson watched practice from the bench. They’re using five days for Thompson to try to get better by Friday’s game against the New York Rangers.

After practice, Lukas Rousek was sent back down to Rochester. Rousek, who was on emergency recall, had a goal and an assist in his NHL debut on Monday.

Photo credit Losi and Gangi
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