The mid-slot defence on the penalty kill
The Montreal Canadiens defencemen have a tendency to leave players alone at the side of the net while defending higher up in the zone to prevent point shots. This tactic has been pointed out as one used by Karl Alzner this season, with many of the goals surrendered while he’s on the ice the direct result of the puck making it to that unmarked player.
Last night, David Schlemko was doing the same thing, while checking over his shoulder to keep track of where that open player was.
With the defencemen aware that there’s no one between one of the opponents and their goaltender, it’s clearly part of the game plan to more aggressively defend shots from the blue line than to box out players in front of the crease. It happened with Antti Niemi in net last night, so it doesn’t seem to be an instruction from Carey Price to let him handle the one-on-one situations at the top of the crease, but rather a coached strategy for surviving minor penalties.
That particular aspect of the penalty kill didn’t result in a goal (the Habs surrendered their near-nightly power-play goal in a different fashion), but it does seem like an odd tactic, especially with how many times it has led to goals from unchecked players this season.
Niemi’s good performance
Antti Niemi has played quite well for the Canadiens since joining the team, which has been a pleasant surprise given the sub-.900 save percentage he posted with each of the three teams he had previously played for over the last two seasons.
He hasn’t been flashy, and does tend to look a bit shaky with his positioning at times, but he has been doing enough to give the Habs a chance to win, which is the only question that should ever be asked of a backup netminder.
Taking advantage of a Washington Capitals team far from its most dangerous, he was able to turn aside nearly everything that was directed his way to register his first win of the season.
Galchenyuk drop passes
An inability to score can do strange things to a player’s behaviour. For Alex Galchenyuk, that has manifested as a penchant to attempt a drop pass to a player who may or may not (often the latter) be following him up on the rush. That occurred last night with nothing occupying the 20 feet or so between him and Capitals netminder Philipp Grubauer.
When Galchenyuk is on the ice, there is no better option to shoot the puck, and that fact has been forgotten by him at various points of his career.
Hudon’s effort level
Galchenyuk’s drop pass wasn’t even the most glaring case of a lack of confidence last night. That title belonged to another sniper who hasn’t been able to post a conversion rate up to his own standards: Charles Hudon.
It must be frustrating for a person who believes his job is scoring goals to have just four after finally earning his spot in the NHL. Fortunately, he has been able have an impact in other ways.
The first great chance Montreal had to score came from a three-way passing play from Hudon to Paul Byron to Max Pacioretty at the opposite side of the net. The chance came about from Hudon winning a puck battle along the side boards and then swinging it to the other side of the ice. He then followed up the play by grabbing the rebound and moving it to the other side of the net for Byron to have a glorious chance that required an incredible save.
He won another battle with a Capitals defender to set up a chance later in the period as well.
Hudon ranks right with Brendan Gallagher and Pacioretty in shots, high-danger shot attempts, and scoring chances per game, and for a player who was one of the top scorers in his time in the AHL, gradually increasing his goals-per-game rate in his time there, he should begin to get rewarded. But even if he doesn’t, he’s still been one of the most effective players at keeping the play revolving around the opposing net.
Watching confidence build in real time
With Galchenyuk passing up a chance at a shot, Hudon’s decision to lateral the puck on a breakaway, even Byron handing off a great scoring chance to Pacioretty on that tic-tac-toe play started by Hudon, it was clear that the Canadiens were struggling with a lack of confidence.
As the game wore on, with the Canadiens players clearly determined to play in the offensive zone, the shots began to come.
There were no reverses on a third-period power play from Galchenyuk, who fired two shots that beat the goalie but not his goal posts.
Moments later Artturi Lehkonen attempted to beat Grubauer with a perfect shot but once again found the bar.
Not long after, with the Habs in the zone again, Byron was presented with an open net, leaving him no choice but to fire the puck into the gaping cage.
After the goal, the broadcast showed Lehkonen’s celebration on the bench that was about 90% relief that the team had been able to get the lead after his shot had rung off the iron, with Jacob de la Rose wrapping up what had apparently been consolation duty by tapping his teammate on the head. It goes to show just how much the lack of conversion is affecting the players.
Bonus point: Blue-line contributions
Fortunately, the team now has three puck-moving defenceman taking the ice regularly, with Jeff Petry, Victor Mete, and Jakub Jerabek all in the lineup together. Their skills can help keep the play flowing toward the offenive end, and allow the forwards to fire away until one of their shots finally does hit something other than glass, wood, iron, or heavily padded human.
The go-ahead goal was created by Jerabek’s point shot getting to Byron, with a fortuitous bounce off Pacioretty helping the puck find its way to the goal-scorer. Jerabek now has four points on the season, all coming in the last three games.
When set up in the offensive zone, you can get those types of bounces with players stationed around the goal, especially if the puck is coming in from the blue line and not requiring the forwards to do all the work.
There’s little chance for the team to make the playoffs, but with 36 games left, there’s still plenty of opportunity for those who will be around next year to work on their chemistry, discover their teammates’ tendencies, and keep the fans engaged with some entertaining hockey.