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The Penguins took their transition game for granted, and the Canadiens made them pay

The Canadiens didn’t give the Penguins’ defence any room to breathe, and that seems to be the new strategy this season.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last several years, the Pittsburgh Penguins have built a foundation of strong transition play, combining smart, mobile defencemen with elite forwards capable of carrying the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive zone. This ability to rapidly turn defence into offence has powered the Penguins to two Stanley Cups and a well-earned reputation as one of the league’s premier offensive squads.

However, familiarity can breed contempt, especially against a Montreal Canadiens team that was known for its passivity last season. On Saturday night, the Habs were able to show just how much difference a year can make, using their newfound offensive-zone aggression to take away time and space and deny the Penguins comfortable zone exits. The uncharacteristic errors they forced from the vaunted Penguin transition game directly led to the first two goals, en route to a 5-1 victory for the visitors.

But the example I want to highlight here did not result in the puck sailing past Matt Murray. Instead, a sequence that started within the first 60 seconds of the match would set the tone for the entire evening.

New acquisition Jack Johnson (#73, black) finds himself with the puck on the left half-wall staring down an on-rushing Tomas Tatar (#90, white) and Brendan Gallagher (#11, white). Gallagher’s aggression causes Johnson to bobble the puck, which caroms off the Penguin defender and the streaking Gallagher into the left faceoff circle.

As he is suppsed to do, Johnson’s defensive partner. Olli Maatta (#3, black). comes over in support and picks up the puck. Last year, with Gallagher and Tatar both committed to Johnson, Maatta would have had time and space to lift his head and find an outlet. This year, Phillip Danault (#24, white) is well positioned to support the forecheck.

Maatta takes the puck on his backhand, transitions to his forehand, and lifts his head — to see nothing but Danault directly in his field of view and Evgeni Malkin (#71, black) flying the zone behind him. If Maatta had more time, he could have realized that he actually had two decent passing lanes here: to Phil Kessel (#81, black) on the forehand or Carl Hagelin (#62, black) on the backhand. Instead, Maatta tries to force a soft backhand saucer pass through Danault to Malkin.

The puck bounces off Danault, is scooped up by a recovering Tatar, and quickly moved down low to Gallagher, who is now one-on-one with Johnson. Gallagher has his back to goal, so he sets up Tatar for a one-timer that Murray is able to stop.

It needs to be said that this is a risky play for Danault. If his timing is slightly off, Maatta gains the second he needs to find the aforementioned Kessel or Hagelin. With Malkin having flown the zone and Hagelin possessing blazing speed, a bad pinch could have easily turned into a three-on-two for the Penguins against Victor Mete and Jeff Petry. But against a team with as much firepower as the Penguins, avoiding calculated risks would be a recipe for disaster.

Ultimately, this sequence shows up on the scoresheet as nothing more than a shot on goal for Montreal. However, it was a broadside volley at the Penguins, a declaration that the Habs would not play scared of the Penguins’ offensive weapons, and that if they were going to go down, they would go down fighting.