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Micro Analysis: A lack of structure is giving the Canadiens one layer of defence

Without the proper support, errors are being magnified over Montreal’s losing streak.

Boston Bruins v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The loss on Saturday stung for the Montreal Canadiens. It was not a game they should have let slip. The coach came out and called the defensive game “soft.” Going into last night, they obviously wanted to prove that wrong. It’s not who they are; they don’t let up. They work hard.

Unfortunately, there is such a thing as working too hard on defence, and the game against Boston, even if it didn’t look it, was a good example of it.

As pointed out by Marc Denis on the RDS broadcast, on two consecutive penalty kills, Habs players tried to prove they care about their defensive work by finishing their checks, crushing opponents into the boards. Both times, Boston scored.

Why? Because the displays of heart, aggressiveness, and truculence completely dragged them out of position. The intention was noble, but the effect was disastrous. It left the ice open, passing lanes uncovered, and shooters in perfect position. Those two goals with a man down put the Habs into a hole — a continuing storyline in this start to the season.

Then there was the defensive failure to open up the second period. Off neutral-zone faceoffs, the winger on the side of the puck is supposed to pressure the opposing defenceman in possession, which Brendan Gallagher did. Zdeno Chara still got his pass through to Brad Marchand who bumped it to David Pastrnak in the wide lane.

At this point, the Habs were fine. They conceded the offensive-zone entry, but Pastrnak was still on the outside. He couldn’t create anything very dangerous from that region of the ice. But Shea Weber was late on his read of the play, and wary of Pastrnak beating him wide. He pivoted early, turning his feet toward the back boards.

Any talented forward in this situation sees a golden opportunity. It’s free access to the slot. Pastrnak can cut to the middle, counter to the movement of Weber, and do it without the big defender being able to recover due to having his feet pointed in the wrong direction. So Pastrnak did exactly that. Ben Chiarot didn’t see Pastrnak cutting, and the puck was in the back of the net. 4-1.

By this point, the game was already out of the Habs’ hands. It might not have been for the energetic early-season iteration, but for the team facing the prospect of a fifth straight loss — many of those against inferior teams — it meant Game Over.

The defensive issues of the Habs are multiple, and the blame should be shared by everyone. Players are either overextending, a step late, or both, and those away from the puck fail to cover for their teammates when they get beat.

Defensive breakdowns are nothing special. There are dozens, hundreds even, in any hockey game. But defences are supposed to have layers. It’s only when multiple skaters repeatedly fail their assignments that you see avalanches of goals against like in the past few games.

Currently, it looks like a mental engagement problem. We have seen the Habs execute their system very well. At their best, they go toe-to-toe with the top teams with their ‘shut down and counter-attack’ identity, but that hasn’t been on display in recent games.

The Canadiens seem to have forgotten who they are.