Saturday night will be hard to forget. The only hope is that this awful performance becomes a wakeup call for a Montreal Canadiens squad that decides to play to the level of their opponent, or worse, expect easy games and slow down the pace of their play.
Their identity is one of a hard-working group. They score goals off turnovers because they out-work opponents and close off space. That didn’t happen versus the New York Rangers. And not just for half of the game; the first period or so was much closer in terms of scoring chances than the score indicated.
Claude Julien just called his team soft defensively— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) November 24, 2019
Montreal got scored on because they let up. Calling them soft (which seems to be a stinging insult for any hockey player) is definitely appropriate.
There is no point in breaking down every one of the goals against; most could have been avoided if defenders just took a couple more strides to be on top of their checks instead of gliding and hoping the play unfolded in an advantageous way by itself. Sticks in passing lanes and boxing players out are the basic elements of defence, something the Habs are usually great at. On Saturday night, those weren’t executed properly; they were done softly.
Tomorrow’s game against Boston should bring a return to what has driven the success of this team in the past couple of seasons. Players won’t have any choice if they don’t want to be eaten alive by one of the best lines in hockey.
Max Domi and Nick Suzuki’s chemistry
On a generally sombre night, the play of Max Domi and his linemates was the main positive from this game. It took until last night for me to be convinced that Domi and Suzuki could really work together. They are both talented, and they should be able to feed off each other, but something about that combination felt ... off.
When they were first matched on a line at the start of the season, Suzuki was only in his first few strides in the National Hockey League. He pulled off the odd play, but his timing wasn’t there; he was still figuring out where to be and how to act. The rookie was promptly moved down the lineup to find his confidence, and it worked very well.
Julien then moved him back to Domi’s line in the past few games with the positions flipped: Suzuki down the middle, Domi on the flank. Again, the duo didn’t click.
I wrote an article this summer about the perspective of moving the 70-point centreman to the wing to accommodate one of the youngsters coming up. I didn’t mention a name, but I was mostly thinking Jesperi Kotkaniemi would end up forcing the hand of the coaching staff and earn a top-six role. However, it’s hard to predict hockey, and the less expected Suzuki won that spot this year.
The article didn’t make any hard conclusions, but one thing seemed certain: Domi benefited from rushing up the ice behind his wingers on more than a few occasions. They pushed back the defence and gave him space to attempt shots from the slot. It became an abundant source of goals for a player who had trouble scoring in previous seasons, partly explaining the jump from nine markers with the Arizona Coyotes to 28 in his first season with the Habs.
Domi’s underlying numbers were pretty good in the few games he spent on the wing with Suzuki as his centre, but you could see a bit of frustration with the return to wing, especially in the first game following his change of position. He wasn’t really using his speed, and that made breakouts harder and diminished the opportunities off the rush for his linemates. It got better as the games went on, but we weren’t seeing the Domi of last year.
We won’t know what would have happened if the change of position had been permanent, but he likely would have settled into the role. The coaching staff, in need of offence, didn’t continue the gamble. They moved him back to centre, and we saw an explosion of offence.
It would not be exactly correct to credit the move as the main driver behind his productive game versus the Rangers — except for his second goal.
The space he got behind his linemates to set up his shot must have felt familiar for Domi. He immediately went to work, using it to manipulate the defence and get to the slot to fire past the goalie.
The play originated at the faceoff circle. He won the draw and the puck sprung loose on the wall. It’s the centre’s job to collect it in this position, which he did. That let him to be the F3, or the high forward on the sequence. The play moved to a neutral-zone regroup where he had to remain the high forward. It allowed him to set up his wingers to attack the offensive zone with speed, and come in a few steps late to take advantage of the retreating defence.
We can’t discuss the sequence without talking about the play Suzuki made. It was an even bigger reason why Domi got his chance to shoot. He understood that if he moved the defence away from Domi and onto himself, his centre would be able to come up behind him into space. These are the little plays that make or break the offence of a line. It’s chemistry, or knowing the tendencies of your teammates.
It can take a while to really internalize the habits of others in order to make the right plays, without thinking, in very fast on-ice situations. The reason Domi and Suzuki’s chemistry felt off before this game is likely that they weren’t as in sync.
Here are a few examples of plays where they read the plays differently and it lowered the quality of the scoring chance they got.
The first two were from the start of the season, but the last one was from the game on Saturday. Suzuki bypassed defenders by spinning in place to send the puck to Domi on the wall, and the centreman wasn’t expecting it. He will still have to learn that Suzuki finds a way to get the puck to teammates more often than not.
The rookie has picked up six points in his last six games. He is transitioning from surviving in the NHL to creating, which is good news considering the prolonged absence of Jonathan Drouin.
Who knows? Maybe if Domi and Suzuki continue on building their chemistry, Drouin will be able to go back to driving the third line, which is what brought him success at the start of the season. This could all help the Habs go back to their identity of four hard-working lines that also contribute to the offence.