An intense pressure game is hard to maintain for a full 60 minutes, but just like last season, the Montreal Canadiens will have to find a way to do it if they want to compete with some of the best formations in the NHL.
Montreal earned the upper hand on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first period through their forecheck. The forwards disturbed the opposing breakout through their reloading pressure in the offensive zone, and when the play descended in the neutral zone, those same forwards stayed disciplined.
The keys to a strong neutral-zone defence are simple, but take effort and mental engagement to execute well. First, defenceman have to start closing their gaps as soon as the offensive zone (there can’t be an ocean of space between high opposing wingers and the blue-liners responsible for them). Victor Mete, in particular, did a good job of moving up from the point to stop or delay zone exits as they formed. Then, forwards have to take hard strides on the backcheck to get ahead of the out-breaking opponents in between blue lines, giving their teams a number advantage in defence. If the first forward can reach the opposing puck-carrier, he pressures him; if he can’t, he covers the wide lane to prevent a pass across the ice in the neutral zone.
If both those conditions are met, defencemen have the necessary support from forwards, and have closed their gaps appropriately. It becomes easy to stand up against opponents before the defensive blue line and force them to dump the puck.
Defending zone entries takes the involvement of the whole team. Being a step behind or ahead of the play, for any of the first three players leaving the offensive zone, can be the difference between a goal against or taking back possession.
There were numerous great examples of zone-entry defence to choose from in the first period. Montreal was running a master class on the subject.
With the change of momentum, the second period wasn’t as solid for the team, and we started seeing more controlled zone entries from the Lightning. They didn’t result in goals, but they forced the Habs to defend more. That meant installing more defensive-zone structure, which turned into more difficult breakouts, which led to less effective rushes up the ice, which resulted in less offensive presence, which turned into overcommitting on certain plays, which turned into worse neutral-zone defence....
You get the idea. All systems are linked. If one becomes slightly less effective, all the other aspects of the play suffers.
If you have high-end talent — gamebreakers — you can cheat a bit more and still find wins due to your talent rising above the competition in one or two instances. But that’s not the Habs’ identity, at least currently. They have to work and never let up.
Puck management from the fourth line
The fourth line iced the puck three times. Normally, this is not a big deal; it’s a small mistake that you brush away. But Tampa Bay is not a normal team. Their first line is incredibly stacked with talent. They only need a couple of chances to make you pay and run away with the game.
Icing the puck means that the players who missed their clear can’t change, but the opposition can. It’s quite scary for a coach to see Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Nikita Kucherov gliding from the bench, pitted against Nick Suzuki, a rookie of five NHL games, and his third defensive pairing. Two of the three icings were at the very start of periods, so it was the rested version of the best line in the NHL against the bottom elements of the Habs.
Tampa scored the game-winning goal following a penalty to Brett Kulak after the second of those three icings. Tampa’s first line overwhelmed the Canadiens players on the ice. The infraction followed, and a deadly power play did the rest.
Puck management is incredibly important. Icing might not end up hurting you 95% of the time, but in such a close game every split-second decision matters and it’s important to be mindful of your role, especially for the fourth line. Last year Julien stated multiple times that what he wanted the most out of his fourth line was dependability. They didn’t give him that for the full duration of the game against the Lightning.
Weber continuously deferring to Mete
Shea Weber didn’t have a great game last night, and some of the issues also related to puck management. For such a veteran player, Weber relies on his partner a little too much to handle the puck; he has to be able to make plays under pressure, too.
In the sequence below, Weber made a succession of plays that limited the Habs’ ability to exit the zone cleanly against the forecheck.
He first slowly glided down the ice to support Price on the breakout. The goalie didn’t send the puck to Weber precisely, but the defenceman only gave himself one option with his choice of speed, skating route, and body positioning: an indirect board pass to his partner. Mete was immediately faced with pressure upon receiving and had to get rid of possession.
The puck got back to the Lightning, and they dumped it back in the Habs’ zone, again toward Weber’s side of the ice (it’s a safe bet that this is part of a pre-game plan). The defenceman got beat to the puck, so Price decided to hazardously get out of his net in an attempt to move the puck before the Lightning forechecker touched it — unsuccessfully.
After a prolonged defensive sequence, Weber got one last chance to attempt to exit the zone for his team. The puck was rimmed toward the back of the net, in position for him to be first on it. This was a great setup to start a breakout. Weber had an uncontested touch on the puck, and its position played in his favour: the opponent pursuing him had to get around the net to attempt a steal. On top of those positive factors, there was a whole empty side of the ice where the puck could go, and teammates nearby ready to swing that way to receive.
Weber instead decided to backhand the puck back where it came from, toward his partner on the crowded side of the ice, forcing Mete to creatively find a way to get it out of trouble — which he did with repeated one-handed pokechecks.
The captain didn’t have much time to make a controlled play, but just rimming the puck toward the less-crowded side of the ice would have given Montreal better odds to get to it and organize a controlled exit. He will have to display better decision-making and quicker execution on breakouts if he is to continue leading Montreal to wins against talented and organized formations like the Tampa Bay Lightning.