On Thursday night at the Bell Centre, through seven minutes of the first period, the Montreal Canadiens had largely dictated the game to the New Jersey Devils — even fending off a Devils power play with no harm done. Yet, all this work was undone from a quick odd-man rush that left the Habs in a familiar position: trailing despite having the run of play.
The actions of three key individuals culminated in the New Jersey opener: Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ben Chiarot, and Shea Weber. In the actions of all three individuals, the common thread was that they were trying to do more than they normally would.
Kotkaniemi is hearing the whispers of the public and the press
Through the first quarter, Kotkaniemi’s season has been optimistically described as passable. While his defensive game hasn’t suffered too much, the sophomore’s inability to contribute offensively has led to public noise about a potential demotion to Laval. In response, Kotkaniemi has been reportedly putting in extra work and seeking the advice of veterans, trying to return to a place where “hockey felt fun.”
On Thursday night, Kotkaniemi’s mindset was obvious. Seeing Chiarot take the puck on the right half-boards, a more prudent Kotkaniemi would have recognized that he was the second-highest player and reacted accordingly. Instead, the young Finn went goal-hunting, charging into the slot in pursuit of a rebound that never came and leaving Weber alone at the blue line.
Chiarot needs to have more situational awareness on offence
Speaking of the Canadiens’ offseason blueline acquisition, Chiarot’s decision-making during that sequence magnified Kotkaniemi’s rashness. Upon receiving the puck, Chiarot has no Devil closer to him than Travis Zajac at the faceoff dot. Instead of taking the puck and surveying his multitude of options, Chiarot instantly flings it at Devils’ netminder Mackenzie Blackwood, failing to acknowledge the sharpness of his angle, the complete lack of net-front presence, and the charging Kotkaniemi.
Unsurprisingly, Chiarot’s tame effort is easily repulsed — and not just repulsed, repulsed in a controlled manner. Sami Vatanen softly deflects the shot into the vacant corner where Zajac is easily first on the puck. At this point, Kotkaniemi makes the correct play by committing to the check, as he’s the player with momentum. Chiarot, however, instead of immediately retreating, takes two shuffle steps towards Zajac and attempts to block the clearance pass. While acknowledging that it’s more than unlikely that Chiarot, even if he had turned immediately, could have made an impact on the ensuing 2-on-1, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility. When the play ends, Chiarot, who had glided upon entering his own zone, was at the top of the faceoff circles. Could not another second or two have placed him at the hash marks, close enough to offer back pressure on Nikita Gusev?
Weber needs to pick shot or pass, not both
Finally, as the 2-on-1 develops, Weber settles, as he should, into the passing lane. Carey Price, seeing this, places his trust in Weber and comes out to challenge the puck carrier Gusev. Gusev ostensibly goes to shoot before he reaches the hash marks... and Weber opens his body up completely in an attempt to get a stick in the shooting lane.
If the Canadiens were given the option to select their preferred outcome on a 2-on-1 against, they would gladly take a Gusev wristshot from beyond the hash marks versus a set and ready Price. Yet, when presented with this exact situation, Weber still elects to try to block the shot — not with his body, but with the blade of his stick, where it could easily deflect or ramp a tame shot into something dangerous. Moreover, by executing a curl-back, Gusev is not just changing the angle prior to any potential shot, he’s giving himself options in not fully committing his body to the shot, and this is something that a veteran such as Weber must recognize.
Had Weber simply stuck to the pass, Gusev, a man with four goals on the season and a 9.6% shooting percentage, would have likely required a perfect shot to beat Price from that position. Instead, the Russian newcomer is able to easily avoid Weber’s stick and slide the puck gently between the legs of the Canadiens’ captain to an onrushing Blake Coleman, who, with Price committed to the shot, has a gaping maw to shoot at.
The Canadiens need to get back to basics
Now mired in a six-game losing streak, the Habs need to understand that they’re not a team where individual efforts can turn the club’s fortunes around. The Canadiens live and die as a unit, and just like with any unit, if one individual isn’t aligned with the others, “die” becomes the more likely scenario.