There were more in-game coaching decisions that we normally see on a given night from Claude Julien’s staff on Thursday. With Nick Suzuki centring the third line, the team probably felt like they had to shelter the rookie a bit more than usual against the big and fast forwards of the Vegas Golden Knights. Julien especially wanted the young forward to avoid the crushing fourth line.
To that end, on a couple of occasions we saw Julien send his own fourth unit preemptively to take faceoffs, forcing Gerard Gallant to match with his big, bad bottom unit. Gallant wouldn’t have wanted a matchup of Ryan Reaves’s unit against one of the Habs’ top-six trios on the following shifts.
When Julien couldn’t shelter Suzuki by sending his fourth line to take defensive draws (as they were resting on the bench), he employed the same strategy he used last year with Jesperi Kotkaniemi: employing Phillip Danault in the middle of Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron for at least the start, at least until the puck was comfortably out of the zone.
Late in the third period, with the Habs in need of a goal, Julien also reorganized his lines to have his most trusted and energetic elements in the last minutes of the game. He first sent out a trio of Suzuki, Nick Cousins, and Nate Thompson then followed it by using Jordan Weal, Joel Armia, and Danault. This then allowed him a rested forward unit of Max Domi, Brendan Gallagher, and Jonathan Drouin, who managed to beat the defensive formation of the Vegas Golden Knights with speed, retrieve the puck, and send it to the net to ram it in for the tying goal.
Getting out of the zone was the big issue to overcome this game. Vegas’s bread and butter is their forecheck. They pressure hard, and they pressure well. Those are two different things that need to complement each other.
The Knights take hard strides to get on the puck-carrier, sometimes even doubling their attack on poor opposing defencemen trying to make a pass. On top of that, they are really good at sticking to their system, which dictates that they take away the boards in the defensive zone.
Rims are the easy breakouts for defenceman. Wingers are waiting on the wall to receive the puck circling up and away from the defensive zone. When the pressure is softer, they can easily pick it up and skate it out, or transfer it to the centre accelerating through the middle.
When those rim passes are taken away, defencemen have to put in extra effort to find controlled exits through the middle of the ice directly. It often involves making a move to shake a first forechecker, then turning to face up the ice before sending the puck to the player acting as pivot — and doing all of that in a timely enough manner to not miss the window in which the pivot comes low to support the play.
When those defencemen are tired, and the timing is a little bit off with the forwards, it can get hard to execute, especially facing the drilled forecheck of the Golden Knights always taking out the easier breakouts via the boards.
Last night, the lack of controlled breakouts limited the Habs’ rush offence, but more than anything, it led to repeated defensive breakdowns as players scrambled back to position after the failed exits.
Mark Stone’s defensive stick
We hear all the time that a player has “an active stick” or “a good defensive stick.’’ It doesn’t mean much without context. Well, one player who definitely has a good defensive stick is Mark Stone. He showcases it every game.
It’s not that his stick has a mind of his own, darting from his hand to block passing lanes and strip other players from the puck — but almost. In the hands of Stone, a stick seems to be twice as effective as an average defensive player’s, like it’s stalking its prey until it can pounce.
Take a look at this sequence on the penalty kill:
In this partial odd-man rush, most other players in Stone’s place would have their stick hyper-extended to cut a potential passing lane, but the Vegas winger knows that this would be counterproductive to his ultimate goal of blocking the pass.
Why take away an option when you can make that option attractive for the offensive player, inviting him to take it, and then whack his pass away? Stone understands that it’s much easier to direct the attack by leaving a play open knowing he can block it at the last second.
In the clip above, he levels himself with Shea Weber, blocking a first passing lane, but doesn’t immediately place his stick to cut a pass to Weal. He waits until Jonathan Drouin aims a pass toward him then takes a step forward and extends his blade and deflects the puck to the corner.
Great defence is all about awareness and patience — or forcing the opponent to commit the first move.