Jonathan Drouin catching the puck
One of the skills separating elite from average players is pass-reception. Receiving a pass seems simple enough, but sometimes the puck is a few inches in the air, wobbling, or doesn’t hit the blade just right. When it happens, it can be difficult to settle it down in time to make a play.
Ben Chiarot’s pass, while in Drouin’s general wheelhouse, hit the heel of his blade to start off the sequence leading to his goal, but Drouin managed to catch the puck as it bounced out of range and brought it back in front in one swift, precise motion.
His head was up for the duration of the play; only his eyes went down for a fraction of a second. He perfectly chained this reception with a backhand-forehand move that made the defender hesitate and opened up a shooting lane, and followed his move with a shot that barely gave any tell to the goalie. Drouin simply flicked his blade from closed to open and sent the puck behind Jordan Binnington.
The goal is a great example of Drouin being able to make plays others simply can’t. It took a coordination and a smoothness of handling that few other players possess — even in the NHL.
Because he can pull off plays like this, he can keep defenders guessing when he has the puck, and sometimes doesn’t need to do anything at all to beat them.
In the second period, at the point on the power play, Drouin opened up his stick blade, let the defender get close, then froze, holding off on his next move until the opponent’s momentum carried him out of position. It allowed the Habs forward to beat him down the wall.
Six points in five games to start the year is a welcome change of pace from the disappointing end to the 2018-19 season. High effort have turned into high confidence, which has translated into clean execution of high-level plays. Drouin’s motor is churning and we are now seeing what he’s truly capable of achieving.
Jordan Weal deserves his chance in the top six
Most see Weal as a simple fourth-line player; what he has been throughout his career. It’s a fair view of the player. At 27 years old, past history is a good predictor of what can be expected. He hasn’t proven himself to be one of the main contributors at the NHL level.
I continue to believe there is more to the player that the story of his career stats. On-ice contribution is also factor of opportunity, and Weal might just have found the right one with the Montreal Canadiens.
He gets power-play time and has shown himself to be effective at opening space and passing lanes to feed teammates for shots. On a team that has deft playmakers like Drouin and Max Domi, Weal is arguably the best creator from the half-wall, showing shifty stick-handling while veiling his intentions very well to confound the defence.
These are elements he could apply to five-on-five play with skilled teammates. Yes, the game is more dynamic at even strength, but on top of being more skilled than your usual depth player, Weal has repeatedly displayed another quality that make him an interesting tryout candidate on Domi’s line: his elusiveness.
He might only be 5’10”, but he is very durable and bounces off checks easily. He welcomes back-pressure and seems to take pleasure in spinning off defenders on his back as soon as they extend their stick to try to take the puck away.
Weal’s puck-protection abilities are some of the best on the team, due to strong skating mechanics and an instinctual feel for where pressure is coming from. It allows him to keep the puck in tight spaces, and at times even come out of them cleanly to feed passes to the slot, showing a vision that could also be better exploited in a more offensive role.
Despite being more talented with the puck, this is not an element of the game that Nick Suzuki has mastered at this early stafe, and it is one that makes a huge difference in a line’s ability to create offence from the wall.
Weal didn’t have a stunning performance flanking Domi against the Blues, but he deserves a few games to show what he can pull off placed with the Habs’ best offensive forward. Even if he doesn’t work inside the trio, he shouldn’t hurt the line considering his ability to play a two-way game, and the Canadiens might end up discovering an effective combination in the process.
Jeff Petry evading the Blues’s forecheck
The Blues are known for their heavy, relentless, pounding forecheck. They sometimes send two skaters on one opposing blue-liner when they feel they have a chance to gain the puck. It’s aggressive and it works in their favour due to how structured they are.
The way to beat the strategy is having confident and mobile defencemen — or great puck-movers.
In a particular play at the end of the second period, Shea Weber (as he often does) deferred to his partner to create the breakout. He had close back-pressure and preferred to make a safe pass to the other side of the ice. Usually on that side of the ice sits Victor Mete. His feet move quickly, but he hasn’t developed the confidence to consistently use them yet. On this play in the second period, at the left of Weber was Jeff Petry.
Petry doesn’t have the rocket skates of Mete, but has faced a few thousand pressured breakouts in his career. He is also a pretty bold blue-liner.
His next play, how he immediately exploded up the ice with the puck, using the net to create separation from the forechecking opponents, could be a good teaching sequence for Mete. This is exactly what he has to try to do to be an effective partner for Weber, who can take care of close-quarters defence, but can’t yet transition the play in the same way.
Petry finished his play by crashing the net at the opposite end of the ice, almost deflecting in a pass coming off the stick of Phillip Danault.
This is how you take advantage of an aggressive forecheck, with fast transitions, using the middle of the ice, and involving defencemen into the attack.