Brendan Gallagher’s offensive timing
Creating goals from the doorstep is its own mini-game. It is often seen as this grand contest of stamina and strength superiority, but on top of that, playing net-front is all about a great sense of timing. It is what separates the players who consistently manage to find goals in the area from those who suffer the frustration of getting whacked by defenders without enjoying the fruits of their labor.
Great timing is ever more important for a diminutive forward like Brendan Gallagher.
On the first goal of the game, Mikey Reilly did a good job of improving his shot location. He used the space in front of him to get closer to the slot and his release to make his shot that much harder to control for the Hutchinson, even if it was saved.
Following the goalie’s stop, Tomas Tatar spotted the loose puck and quickly moved in its direction.
This is where Brendan Gallagher’s sense of timing turned the offensive sequence into a goal.
Recovering his balance after a shove from Cody Ceci, he peeked to his left, spotting the loose puck, then to his right to see Tatar’s movement. He sprung loose from the defender and pivoted to face the net. He could have immediately taken steps towards it. But he waited for Tatar to surround the puck before the move.
Then he sprinted towards the cage and slammed his stick to the ice for the puck to make contact. It deflected off of Hutchinson, but he banged it in on the second try.
The extra quarter of a second prevented Dmytro Timashov from taking his stick away or shoving him down, like he would have if Gallagher immediately jumped to front of the net and waited for the puck to arrive. Instead, he was in the right spot at the right time, and avoided a defensive counter.
It’s not Gallagher’s first season in the NHL and he has honed his tricks through the years. It’s also why he remains so consistent and effective.
Once again, he was the spark plug for the Montreal Canadiens with this first period marker.
Cale Fleury’s defensive game
Fleury’s play with the puck had some hurdles this game, but generally he moved it well and looked solid in his own end.
Sometimes, the best way to have the puck immediately exit the zone is to break up plays in timely ways. Three times — that I noted — Fleury’s ability to neutralize opponents and cut passing lanes directly led to it either bouncing over the defensive blue-line, or directly to a teammate’s stick for a breakout.
In the first sequence, the defenceman protects the slot and stays near his man inside it; he doesn’t jump on the player skating on the wide line on the mini two-on-one against him, a mistake other rookies would have easily made. Fleury then follows his coverage assignment and gets his stick underneath his opponent’s to lift it as he was about to receive a pass.
Fleury smartly doesn’t go into a body positioning and stick battle there. He simply times his defensive counter at the same time as the opponent would want to make a play on the puck. It’s good defensive timing and it allows him to easily get the upper hand.
This sense of timing and good positioning is again reflected in the second sequence, where Fleury pushes Trevor Moore attempting to tip a shot from the blue-line as the puck is fired, then neutralizes his stick as he tried to receive a cross-ice pass. The defenceman follows it up by immediately getting his stick on the puck as Moore gets possession on the wall and turns to make a play to the slot.
In the last clip, with a few minutes remaining to the game, Fleury again cuts a pass destined to Moore standing in the right circle.
This is the kind of defensive pressure that quickly suffocates and frustrates opponents.
Ben Chiarot’s puck-moving
Ben Chiarot was taken off of the first penalty kill unit against the Leafs, as Claude Julien preferred to use Shea Weber and Jeff Petry against the best elements of the Leafs.
But on the other hand, Chiarot got a promotion at five-on-five slotting to the left of Petry, and managed to show an improved puck-moving game. Not all of his attempts were successful, but the defenceman had the right mentality all night long.
Montreal aims to have the quickest transition possible. This means that, while D-to-D passes are sometimes a necessity, they must be a last resort play. The puck has to move north on the ice as soon as possible and preferably in a controlled way.
This is generally done by hitting the centreman through the middle of the ice on breakouts. Rim off the glass often arrive to standing still wingers on the boards and force them to make another lateral pass to reach the pivot player accelerating in space. It’s better to connect with this player directly to avoid multiple passes to exit the zone; each subsequent pass after the first one delays the breakout and gives a better chance for the defence to regroup and stop the rush at its inception.
Chiarot managed a feed behind his back and under pressure to Armia, acting centreman in this instance. It was a puck he could have slid along the boards, but he attempted the harder play that allowed his team to exit the zone with speed.
And on multiple neutral zone regroups, Chiarot looked off Petry and used his above-average skating ability to create space from the forecheck and hit players directly up the ice.
These are encouraging signs that the ex-Jets defenceman is getting more used to the Habs system. The Leafs are a great forechecking team and Chiarot looked confident enough to make plays he didn’t always try in previous games.
Turnovers at the blue-line
This game was a great reminder of why turnovers between the top of the circle and the offensive blue-line are dreaded by coaches. The Leafs defencemen or forwards at the point gifted the puck to Montreal on multiple occasions, causing three goals.
Habs players previously defending had an immense advantage in those situations. They faced the opposing net and were right on top of the last line of the defence. It was very easy to distance it and create odd-man rushes, which turned into an insurmountable 5-2 lead at some point.
Puck management at the offensive blue-line is extremely important for defenders — it’s where many games like this one are won or lost. Their responsibility is first to not turn it over, chip it back down if they have to, only making plays if they have full control of it. And blind passes are the worst-case scenario.
It turned to Montreal’s advantage this game, but it’s something that should continuously be on the back of the mind of their defenders.