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Columbus at Boston 3/19/18: Special Preview

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Scouting the Bruins Opponent

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Just the Facts

When: 7 PM EST

Where: TD Garden

How to Follow: coverage on NESN and 98.5 The Sports Hub

Rival SBN Site: The Cannon

Know Your Enemy

Record: 39-28-5

Leading Scorer: Artemi Panarin, 63 points


Who are the Columbus Blue Jackets?

Unlike last season, where the Blue Jackets were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, they are currently battling for a playoff spot. The Jackets, led by John Tortorella, have taken a step back this season, but perhaps not as much as it seems.

The Blue Jackets tend to out-shoot teams, but it isn’t by defending well. That’s not to say the Jackets are a bad defensive team, as they sit 7th in unblocked shot attempts against per 60 at 5v5, but they are 2nd in unblocked shot attempts for per 60 minutes. The chart below helps visualize this. Red space is above league average, and blue is below league average when it comes to unblocked shot attempts per 60 at that point. So red is good offensively, and blue is good defensively.

As you can see, the Jackets shoot from pretty much anywhere above average, and aren’t bad defensively, although they’d like to be better in the home plate area.

This is also a disciplined team. They are 2nd in the league for penalties taken during 5v5 play per 60 minutes. However, in the first matchup between the Bruins and Jackets, in Columbus on October 30th, the Bruins scored 3 powerplay goals, which allowed the Bruins grab a point in a 4-3 shootout loss.

A Skilled Defensive Core

The Blue Jackets are known throughout the league to have some of the most active defensemen in the league. With talents like Zach Werenski and Seth Jones on the back end, getting their defensemen involved in transition, and the offensive zone is key for the Blue Jackets success.

In the first two games this season against the Bruins, the Blue Jackets attempted 131 zone exits at 5v5. They managed to control 44.3% of them, which is slightly inferior to the Bruins 47.2%. However, 44.8% of their controlled exits were passing exits compared to Boston’s 36.7%. This indicates a fairly different play style between the two teams.

A passing exit occurs in two instances:

  1. A player who had control of the puck in his own zone completed a pass to a teammate outside of the zone.
  2. A player who had control of the puck in his own zone completed a pass close to the blue line (about 5 feet)

In this graph, blue is the point of pass by Blue Jackets, red is where the passes were received, black is the point of pass for Bruins passes, and yellow was where those passes were received.

The difference between the two teams is quite small. It does seem that the length of passes on exit are slightly larger for the Jackets, as the passes come from deeper in the zone. The Jackets were able to create, what could have been, four dangerous transitions with passes received within ten feet of the Bruins blueline.

A good example of a dangerous stretch pass is this. Seth Jones is able to hit Sonny Milano within feet of the Bruins blueline from the high slot in his own zone. Luckily, the Bruins respected the duo of Jones and Werenski, and played very conservatively. Ryan Spooner, who was centering a line between DeBrusk and Bjork, was back at the blueline covering for Grzelcyk who was retreating from pinching on the left boards. Keeping the play in front of them, the Bruins were able to prevent any shots from occurring off of the transition, nullifying the danger.

Overall, the back end hasn’t been able to directly hurt the Bruins. Very few opportunities have come directly from them stretching the Bruins out in transition.

Zone Entries

Continuing on the topic of transition, let’s look at zone entries. We know from prior research, controlled zone entries create more than double the number of unblocked shot attempts per entry, and more dangerous chances.

The Blue Jackets also attempted 131 zone entries against the Bruins at 5v5 in the first two meetings, and controlled 42.0% of them, which is far worse than the Bruins 52.3%. The difference? The Jackets failed on 15.3% of their entry attempts. For comparison, the Bruins failure rate was 4.7%.

The Jackets failed entries came primarily from 1) failed passes from behind the red line, or 2) while trying to enter against the Bruins left side defenseman. This was interesting to me, so I decided to look at uncontrolled entries.

There doesn’t seem to be a left-right bias here like the failed entries, but uncontrolled entries come closer to the blueline against the Bruins left defense than right. This could be meaningless, but perhaps we are seeing more pressure on the puck carrier on that side.

This is a perfect example of forcing an uncontrolled entry. A pass from the defensive zone connects with a Columbus player at the red line, who has a clear lane to control an entry. However, Grzelcyk was able to use his skating ability to close the gap, forcing the Columbus player to try to toe drag. At that point, Grzelcyk is able to engage with his body and get his stick in front of him. The Columbus player never controlled the puck inside the blueline.

Much credit should be given to the backcheckers here who allowed Grzelcyk to be so aggressive. The Bruins F3, in this case Jake DeBrusk, was able to take away the only passing option the Columbus player had. Unfortunately, he ended up taking a penalty seconds later.

Overall, the Jackets have been more successful controlling entries against the Bruins right defensemen than left, and it is a somewhat significant factor.

Offensive Zone

In the first two meetings between these two teams, the Bruins took 76 unblocked shot attempts at 5v5 while the Blue Jackets took only 50. When looking at shot quality, the difference between the two teams becomes more vast. The quality of Bruins shots is far greater than that of the Blue Jackets as seen by the chart below. Bruins are gray and Jackets are blue.

The Blue Jackets shots are much more spread out around the zone contrary to the Bruins peppering the Columbus goaltender from in close. In an attempt to explain this, we can look at shot assists.

Shot assists are passes that lead to shots, and have important predictive and descriptive value. A shot with a pass proceeding it has a higher likelihood of becoming a goal than one without a pass proceeding it. They can also help describe offensive tactics. Let’s take a look at a graph of where passes are received prior to a shot.

29 of the 50 unblocked shot attempts for the Jackets featured a pass leading up to the event. For the most part, players received the puck outside of dangerous areas. It is important to note, tips are included. Something that will hopefully be studied in the next few months, but is just my hypothesis from watching the game at the moment, players generally shot the puck shortly after receiving the pass, therefore, don’t travel far from the point of reception.

In general, we see some movement closer to the net and the middle of the ice, but nothing significant. Most of the shots with a pass proceeding them come from outside dangerous areas. So not only are the Bruins doing a good job at preventing quality chances against, but they are keeping the Blue Jackets outside of the home plate area as a whole, and reducing the added danger of passes leading to shots.

Columbus Powerplay

The only way to describe the Columbus powerplay is to call it a disaster and leave it at that. The Blue Jackets sit at the bottom of the pack in shot production and goal production at 5v4 this season.

In the previous two matchups, the Blue Jackets had just over 16 minutes at 5v4. In that time, they only managed 13 shot attempts. 5 of those attempts were blocked, and one missed the net, leading to just 7 shots on goal, with one going in.

The unique part about there powerplay, is their entries. You know a team is struggling when they try to do too much on entries. They often make multiple passes leading up to entry, and can often times turnover the puck before they even try to enter the zone.

The Blue Jackets actually did a decent job controlling entries against the Bruins in the series, but take a look at this. The Blue Jackets seem to want to get this puck into the Boston zone as quick as possible. They make two passes to their right side.

The Bruins are playing a 1-1-2 neutral zone forecheck which acts similarly to a 1-2-2 forecheck at 5v5. The goal is to trap the opponent on the boards. The Bruins are able to do exactly that. Bergeron and Krug are able to force a turnover, Bergeron puts the puck up of the glass and out of the zone where Marchand is able to recover the puck and go the other way.

Special teams can play a significant part in any game. As long as the Bruins can play half-decent on the penalty kill, they should be able to put special teams in their favor.

Trade Deadline Acquisitions

The Columbus Blue Jackets were a team that was somewhat active at the trade deadline. They acquired 3 key depth players in Ian Cole, Mark Letestu, and Thomas Vanek.

Ian Cole has mostly spent his time with David Savard on the back end for the Jackets. He has produced a few points, has out-shot opponents, and has seen some penalty killing time.

Letestu has spent most of his time with Dubinsky and Calvert. He too has seen time on the penalty kill, and sees far more defensive zone starts. He is playing the role of “shut down center.”

Thomas Vanek has spent most of his time with Wennberg and Jenner. He has a few points, and sees powerplay time.

Who to Watch Out For

Artemi Panarin is one of those really good players that no one talks about. Since coming to the league a couple of years ago, Panarin has been a joy to watch. He is a terrific skater, is a nightmare to deal with in transition, and has offensive creativity that turns into points.

Unlike is Chicago, where Panarin was shadowed by Patrick Kane, this is Panarin’s team, and is he having a career season.

In the previous two meetings, the Bruins were able to keep Panarin in check. He attempted 11 entries, and failed on 4 of them. Not allowing Panarin into the offensive zone prevents shots, and his ability to create goals.

A Quick Recap

  • The Blue Jackets have good shot metrics at 5v5
  • The Blue Jackets tend to stretch out defenses, but that hasn’t really hurt the Bruins in the season series so far
  • The Blue Jackets have a tough time penetrating through the left side of the Bruins defense
  • The Blue Jackets have a tough time getting to high danger areas to take shots against the Bruins
  • Special teams has been a disaster for Columbus
  • Artemi Panarin is really good

Bruins Keys to the Game

  1. Keep the Blue Jackets in front of them in transition.
  2. Continue to keep the Blue Jackets out of dangerous areas.
  3. Stop Artemi Panarin