This Habs season as a whole is not very exciting. The gap to a playoff spot in the standings is only growing, and with that the games that remain to be played are starting to become more and more meaningless. But the worst part about it all, the thing that really makes this season hard to follow, is the product on the ice.
Most nights, it's simply boring.
It makes sense that a weaker team would not bring the joy of winning to their fans very often, but it's still possible to achieve a level of entertainment by playing a more exciting brand of hockey; by opening up on offence and encouraging high-skill plays.
I fully understand that the Habs’ way to win is with a strong system. One that has Carey Price as a backstop and aims to limit risks all over the ice, edging out close game after close game. Going all out on the offence, fighting fire with fire, might be out of the question.
But there comes a time where at least some aspects of the Canadiens play have to change to breathe some life into their game. There’s no reason to repeat the same losing formula, and it would help to get back some of the fun of watching the Habs.
The above clips were all taken with a few minutes to go in the third period of the previous game versus the Tampa Bay Lightning, while down a couple of goals. The Habs were in dire need of scoring chances, but still they restrained themselves to what they do most of the time in the opponent's zone: getting the puck and directing it to the blue line.
It's a simple strategy that aims to create chaos from defencemen funneling low shots on net repetitively, and hoping for a deflection or a rebound. It doesn't require much skill or creativity. It only needs quick forwards that are able to forecheck to continuously retrieve the puck after each attempted shots.
This next clip is another example of this strategy. Tomas Plekanec is coming from behind the net and doesn't even think about giving an option to Brendan Gallagher on the boards, or initiating a cycle which could result in a pass to the front of the net to an open teammate.
Instead, he goes to act as a screen to the goalie right away, as he ultimately knows that #11 is going to feed the puck to Karl Alzner for a shot.
While in this case it almost worked, executing this approach continuously puts a lot of your offence into the hands of luck, and it's rarely favourable. The Lightning were very good at clearing the front of the net, and if it were not for a great tip by Paul Byron, Andrei Vasilevskiy would have seen yet another shot coming from a low-danger area.
Aside from its effectiveness, this strategy tends to limit offensive creativity and make for dull, predictable play. It seems to have taken over the Habs in December, when they were also dominated in high-danger shot attempts more often than not.
Overall there were fewer passes to the slot that resulted in those shot attempts in the last month compared to November for most Montreal forwards.
*Comparing this stretch of 10 games (excluding the outdoor game) to the one before. Stats were tracked manually (so take them with a grain of salt): shot attempts are pucks fired towards the net and include blocked shots. The mid/high danger area is roughly from the top of the circles to the net and in between the dots. This graphs represents the number of passes made into that area resulting in a shot attempt per 60 minutes for each player.
The team may not have the best forward corps in the league, but they are capable of more than what they have shown. Encouraging players to use the space they have in the offensive zone instead of getting the puck on net as soon as possible or sliding it higher to their defenceman for low-danger shots, could be key in the Habs’ search for more scoring.
Keeping things simple is a recipe for a game to end with limited scoring chances and a loss. A defined strategy is good as long as it doesn't take over completely — as it often did in the Tampa Bay game — and eats away at the very thing it tries to create.