By Sheng Peng
What’s different about the much-improved Buffalo Sabres power play this year, Rasmus Dahlin?
“Victor Olofsson,” Dahlin offered, before adding, “Victor Olofsson. He’s a great shooter.”
Three weeks into the new season, Olofsson has already potted six power play goals, tied for the league-lead with James Neal. Buffalo’s fourth-ranked power play has scored at a 30.8 percent clip, fueling the Sabres’ 8-1-1 start. Their power play was 16th in the NHL last season.
Part of the reason for the rookie’s sudden success has been the time and space that he’s been afforded to uncork his dangerous shot. According to data from SPORTLOGiQ, a whopping 66.7 percent of Buffalo’s power play shot attempts from the slot have come with no pressure i.e. no defensive player within six feet. That’s fourth in the league.
Here’s an example from October 5th against New Jersey.
Both Dahlin (26) and Jack Eichel (9) are patient with the puck, drawing in penalty killers before moving the puck. Eichel, in particular, holds the puck for so long, he draws the attention of all four Devils skaters on the ice. But it’s not until P.K. Subban (76) shades toward Sam Reinhart (23) in front, that’s when Eichel rifles it toward Oloffson (68), who has switched to the left flank.
Usually, the left-handed Olofsson takes the right flank of the Sabres’ top power play unit with a ready one-timer. Opposite him, on the left flank, is the right-handed Eichel, another one-timer threat. Dahlin controls the top.
Jeff Skinner (53) occupies the high slot in this group, and he talked about how his teammates have consistently been able to find the open man this year.
“The three top guys, [Eichel, Olofsson, and Dahlin] have all done a great job of working the puck around, not forcing too much,” Skinner said. “For the most part, there’s usually only two [penalty killers] up there. It’s a three-on-two, so they’ve done a good job of opening themselves up to getting the right shot.”
On the Buffalo man advantage, there’s an emphasis on the right shot being of the “royal road” variety. A royal road shot is set up by an east-west pass that crosses the slot; this type of shot is dangerous because it forces goaltenders to make a save while moving from side to side.
The Sabres, according to data from SPORTLOGiQ, are averaging 3.5 completed east-west passes per two power play minutes, which ranks 10th in the NHL.
Three of Olofsson’s six goals, including the one above, have come directly from east-west passes. Even when such passes don’t lead directly to shots or goals, they’re still dangerous: The more you get the goalie to move, the more likely you get them out of position.
Back-to-back Eichel to Olofsson east-west passes get Ben Bishop moving before Dahlin draws Andrew Cogliano (11) away from Olofsson.
Eichel, in particular, creates time and space for his teammates on the Buffalo power play, with his ability to control play from the left half-wall.
“He’s one of the best in the league. Teams have to respect that,” Skinner said. “That opens up other guys for opportunities, whether it’s a shot or an extra little second when they get the puck.”
There is some sign that opposing teams are adjusting to Olofsson’s presence. In Buffalo’s first four games this season, the rookie was responsible for 42.9 percent of his power play unit’s unblocked shot attempts. In the last six games, he’s accounted for just 16.7 percent.
“The opposition is pre-scouting. You need to be creative within each game,” Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger noted. “Take each game with a different approach to neutralize some of the pre-scouting that’s going on.”
This shouldn’t be a problem for Buffalo. With other weapons like Eichel and Dahlin, not to mention 40-goal scorer Skinner, the Sabres power play is full of dangerous options, which we saw on Tuesday against the NHL’s second-best penalty kill:
“When you move the puck fast and simplify,” Dahlin said, “you create a lot of space for each other.”
(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)