I can’t remember which NHL coach stated it, talking about the importance of speedy transitions in breakouts, but it stuck with me: “D to D to D and out of the playoffs.” If you wait too long to get the puck out of the zone, or shuffle it back and forth too many times between teammates, you invariably will face the other team’s fully formed forecheck, and your chance of breaking through plummet dramatically.
Ben Chiarot has made some real efforts to abide by the Montreal Canadiens’ quick transition style since joining the team. His play hasn’t been without hurdles, but he is starting to become a net-positive for the team with the puck on his stick, showing abilities that weren’t present at the start of the season. Simply put: he doesn’t rely on his partners as much and looks to get the puck up the ice as soon as possible.
The goal that started the comeback for the Habs exemplified this well. In the sequence, the forecheck of the Flyers was formed, but they still had to commit one of their players up the ice to force Montreal’s back end to start their breakout.
Mikey Reilly moved the puck over to Chiarot. Now, the defenceman was facing immediate pressure and had the easy outlet of a pass back to his partner. But that would just have moved the problem laterally. The first Flyer forechecker would have easily recovered to then pressure Reilly.
He also had another option in Brendan Gallagher up the ice. The pass would have beat this first forechecker, but sliding the puck up would not have created a numerical advantage for Montreal off the rush. Gallagher would have had to battle his way between blue lines as other Flyers shadowed him.
So, Chiarot made the more difficult play. He took it into his own hands to make a fake, misdirect the forechecker on him, and skate the puck up the ice. He executed this first play perfectly and then attracted another Flyer onto him. He left the second attacker behind the play with a pass to Phillip Danault.
Danault had time to pick up speed in the wide lane. He could easily pierce through Philadelphia’s almost immobile last layers of defence to give the Habs a numerical advantage at the line. He kicked the puck down wide upon entering the offensive zone and drove the net.
Cousins took a “team shot,” aiming the puck low enough for a rebound, and Chiarot skated up to finish the play, a reward for making the difficult but necessary play to start the team’s transition.
The key to a successful rush is beating the first layer of forecheck in the defensive zone. Doing it successfully leads to attacking with numbers and with speed. This is what the Habs’ identity is all about, and Chiarot seems more and more to be adopting that style.
Finding success for the Domi line
Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin don’t seem to read each other well in the offensive zone. Establishing a cycle game and looking for openings isn’t the game of the dynamic duo, even if they are paired with the best puck-protector on the team in Joël Armia.
Drouin and Domi are similar players; they can both attack with a ton of speed and they are very good at finding teammates in good scoring position in chaos, so moreso than any other unit, the success of the line seems to rely on creating turnovers and counter-attacking. For that style to work, they need a confident and involved defensive paring to back them up on the attack, and create those quick changes of possession that allow the forwards to break open scrambling defences.
With the Domi line on the ice, Shea Weber scored off a pressure forecheck. The puck sprung loose after a slow play from Carter Hart and a pokecheck from Armia. In about a second, Drouin picked it up, turned his head, and set up his captain.
A little later in the same period, Weber himself created a turnover by pinching hard on his man in the neutral zone. Victor Mete immediately retrieved the puck and bounced it up to Armia. The Finnish winger dropped a pass to Domi attacking the net with speed. The centreman got his best scoring chance of the game.
Late in the game, the Domi line again started a rush that had a lot of potential after Jeff Petry slid a past under a forechecker’s stick low in the defensive zone, sending Armia up the ice. Immediately, Domi and Drouin were unleashed, criss-crossing to pick up speed and rush up the ice, but Armia couldn’t kick the puck to either of them as he drove down the middle and the defence closed on him.
To find success, the Domi line as it is will have to continue playing this style against every team. For them, that means supporting their defence with intense pressure to allow their back end to feel secure enough to step up on the opposition and create the turnovers that they can take advantage of.
We have seen Drouin, especially, engaged in this mission to start the season. He now needs to show he can continue doing it through the ups and downs of a season to fuel the engine of his line — with Domi right there with him.