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Micro Analysis: The evolving games of Cale Fleury and Nick Suzuki

Playing different positions, both rookies are taking different routes to success.

NHL: NOV 16 Devils at Canadiens Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last night’s game was a mess of penalty-filled mayhem that should best be forgotten in the grand scheme of the season. Overall, Montreal still came out with three out of a possible four points on the weekend by defeating the top team in the league in the Washington Capitals.

After a negative finish, here are some positives from the duo of games.

Cale Fleury’s confidence

Players on the bottom pairing, or on the fourth line for that matter, don’t have a secure spot in the lineup. They consistently have to prove game after game that they can make a positive impact. Their mistakes tend to stick out a lot more, because there’s an easy solution in the form of a replacement skater ready to jump in.

In the last few games, it started to feel like Cale Fleury decided to tone down the puck-moving and offensive aspects of his game — what made it stand out from the pack early on — to play more of a low-event style. It was safer, with less chance for big errors that would get him yanked from the starting lineup.

This particular play against the Blue Jackets stuck in mind. Fleury had all the space in the world and the numeric advantage around him to gain the offensive zone with the puck as he skated between blue lines. Yet he made an early pass to Nate Thompson, forfeiting the advantageous attack and putting his teammate in a squeeze against a defender.

It’s dangerous for a rookies’ development when they start changing their game to hang on to their spot in the NHL. Growth is a lot more important than minutes with the big team at this point of Fleury’s career.

Last night, the young defenceman was back to some of his old ways. He attempted a couple of more difficult plays to find controlled zone exits, like this one in the first period.

Nikita Gusev isn’t very fleet of foot. Fleury seemed to know that because he faked inside and exploded in the wide lane, leaving him behind. He then abruptly cut around another opponent to feed a backhand pass to Charles Hudon.

There was also the defenceman’s first NHL goal, which was a memorable one. He showed a ton of poise holding on to the puck, freezing the goalie and going to his backhand for the surprise factor.

Brendan Gallagher’s reads

After spending so many years living inside the crease, Gallagher has picked up the habits of its occupants. He is as good a shot-reader as the goalies who are doing their best to have him chased away.

Watch his stick on his tip-in goal.

After driving to his home, he watched Jeff Petry’s shot attempt: his head, his body movement, and the angle of his stick. Gallagher then lowered his own to connect with the anticipated trajectory of the fired puck. As Petry also made an effort to look for the stick of Gallagher, it created a perfect deflection past MacKenzie Blackwood.

The small forward’s mastery of body and stick language can not only have him read shooters for deflections, but can also be used against goalies themselves.

On his net-drive in the third period, Gallagher knew his angle of approach gave him barely any chance to beat the netminder, so he went backhand, lowered his shoulder to fake a pass to the middle, and quickly brought the puck back to his forehand to hook it toward the net.

Blackwood didn’t bite on the misdirection, but the move still improved the location of the shot. It made the puck rebound directly in front of the net for Joel Armia to connect with it on his ensuing drive.

Gallagher’s net-front fluency has helped him make a career out of turning shots that should have barely any chance of scoring into great chances for his team. That drive and his tip-in goals were two other great examples.

Nick Suzuki’s progress

On the offence, there is a difference between taking given scoring chances and creating those scoring chances. Most players are generally only capable of doing the first one. Unlocking the second ability is what makes consistently dangerous offensive threats.

Like it often does in this series of articles, this all relates back to Nick Suzuki. The prospect is in a learning process. Each game is a microcosm of it and gives us new insight into his progression.

At the start of the season, Suzuki found himself overwhelmed by the speed of the NHL. He could only take the offensive chances given to him. That often meant making plays off teammates passes or off loose pucks.

Watch this sequence at the start of the Washington game on Friday.

Petry moved up on the attack and beat the last line of the Capitals’ defence to a puck chipped low in the enemy zone. He stopped the defender from accessing it and let it rim around the boards. Suzuki, coming in a step behind, picked it up, circled the net, and found Brett Kulak higher in the zone for a shot on net.

Petry’s movement and Washington arriving late in their coverage on multiple Habs players caused that play to happen. Suzuki still had to locate Kulak and make the pass, but others influenced the outline of the sequence more than him.

What is starting to change is that Suzuki is also coming into his own as a creator, like he was in Junior, and like he will be in the NHL in the future. Opponents will catch on to his tricks, but in some situations, Suzuki will only give them false choices. If defenders play him aggressively, they will free his teammates for passes, and if they back-off, they will give him space to attack inside.

Against Washington, he used a flurry of little manipulations to open lanes for passes or for himself to walk into the slot. Most didn’t work, and that is to be expected. You only need one or two successful ones a game to make a difference in its outcome.

Suzuki showed himself to be this difference-maker on the power play that led to his goal. He moved the shape of the defence continuously by testing opponents, faking them and attacking seams in between them. This way he brought more than one defender onto himself, freeing teammates and increasing the stress put on the penalty kill.

It speaks to a developing confidence, as his internal sense of timing synchronizes more and more with the speed of the game.

Playing centre may have been part of the catalyst for his improved play. It definitely looks like a more comfortable position for him. He isn’t the greatest defensive F1 on the team — again, that’s expected for a first-year NHL player— but at least he can operate in space a lot more than when his main duty is to find breakouts from the boards.

Look at this sequence from experienced winger Tomas Tatar against Washington. He moves low against the boards to support the defensive formation. The puck flies up to him, and Tatar has one second to catch it, get it down on the ice, and to Gallagher with a backhand pass before getting smothered by both an opposing forward and a defenceman pinching down on his back.

It’s not an easy job, especially for a rookie who isn’t particularly strong or used to this facet of the NHL game.

Supporting the play, pouncing on loose pucks, and skating up through the middle of the ice is a lot more freeing for Suzuki. It also gives him more options as he rushes in between blue lines, which feeds into his deceptive acts.

In the sequence above, the centreman flew out of the zone behind his wingers. He received the puck, mid-ice, after it crossed the offensive blue line, then used the threat of Artturi Lehkonen to his left to create space for a release.

The play of Suzuki down the middle means that there is now a log jam at centre on the Montreal Canadiens; something we could never have anticipated just a few years ago.

Max Domi was moved back to the wing against the Devils for the first time since he joined the team to accomodate Suzuki. Even if Domi didn’t seem too thrilled with the experiment — he didn’t make use of his speed as well as he could — it is one that is worth trying out to see the results. It’s a move that could maximize the strengths of the overall group in the long run.