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Micro Analysis: A cascade of defensive issues kept the Habs chasing the Blackhawks

One mistake led to a series of others as defencemen were outclassed on home ice.

Chicago Blackhawks v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

After a dominant performance against the Calgary Flames where the Canadiens where all over the ice, winning battles, backchecking and forechecking hard, wiling themselves to the net, the team fell flat on Wednesday.

Last night, the Chicago Blackhawks gave the Habs a taste of their own medicine — quite unexpected considering they are not the formation you would expect to out-work Claude Julien’s squad, but it happened — again and again. The Canadiens dug themselves too big a hole to climb back.

The Blackhawks won the most ground over the Habs in their play low in the zone. They out-raced, out-muscled and out-skilled Habs players and earned inside positioning repeatedly. Jonathan Toews especially gave everyone a lesson in puck-protection.

The many lost board battles created a chain reaction in Montreal’s defensive coverage. They left a defencemen beaten and out of the play, forcing the centreman to cover and jump on a freed puck-carrier, abandoning his own coverage in the slot in the process. The wingers then couldn’t rotate in time to cover a loose shooter, and that player got a great scoring chance.

If the play didn’t end there, the confusion spread. Habs blue-liners played catch-up, double pressuring the next opposing puck-carrier, which left options behind, which allowed the Hawks to cycle, which further mixed up the defensive coverage, which led to more defenders to lose their inside positioning around the net, and finally, to another great scoring chance, and to a goal against.

Here’s a video breakdown of three sequences where a player lost inside positioning on a puck retrieval. They all led to the defensive squad badly playing catch-up.

It wasn’t only the Habs’ rookies like Cale Fleury who were guilty of losing their battles. Veterans like Marco Scandella and Ben Chiarot at times lacked urgency and were a step late, that or they simply got outsmarted by timely pivots. The Habs’ first line also lacked their usual defensive effectiveness, cheating offensively in key moments.

Details of the game like board battles are a great indicator of a team’s engagement level. Last night, it didn’t rise to the occasion. The Habs’ playoffs hopes are plunging. This game against the Hawks was another one they couldn’t let slip. Expect an easy game against a weaker opponent on the second half of a back-to-back, and you usually get let down.

Erik Gustafsson: free-agent target?

There is no logical way to transition from talking about the Habs’ defensive struggles to suggesting they take a look at a defenceman infamous for letting attackers roam free in the defensive zone and turning the puck over, so I won’t attempt to.

Erik Gustafsson is really skilled. He skates better than most NHL players and consistently makes uses of his great abilities.

In other words, he’s really fun.

I’m not sure even Jeff Petry can match the boldness of some of the moves he attempts. He’s a defenceman with a forward’s brain. It leads him to be two steps toward the attack when he should really be above the puck, but on the flip side, he also pulls off moves in tight few other blue-liners can.

Fleury is generally a solid rush-defender. He doesn’t over-extend his stick, keeps his weight centred over his skates, and doesn’t look at the puck. His gaze is fixated on the opponent’s torso and he closes his gap slowly but surely, only committing to a stop when he is sure he has the advantage. In the above sequence, Gustafsson feeds him false information on his rush. Fleury thinks he has the upper hand, but he doesn't.

The first thing that probably misleads Fleury is that he thinks he is up against a traditional defenceman, not the hybrid Gustafsson. It probably leads the Habs defender to commit to a stop slightly more than usual.

The second thing is that Gustafsson purposely slides toward the periphery of the ice. He makes Fleury move that way, too, and think he has a chance to angle the ‘Hawks player to the boards. But Gustafsson is only baiting him, preparing his heel-turn, toe-drag move to go inside Fleury’s space as soon as the rookie crosses over to the outside of the rink. With his dangle, Gustafsson moves around Fleury and attacks back toward the middle. He finishes the play with a precise backhand feed.

The next clip in the video is simpler, but it still showcases Gustafsson’s understanding of spacing. Gliding back to his zone, he leans on his stick like he is sliding the puck over to his defence partner and invites a forechecking Nick Cousins to close the space between them. As soon as Cousins gets close enough, Gustafsson steps around him and easily escapes with possession towards the neutral zone.

The last clip again shows his good understanding of how to set up feints. At the blue line, he waits for Kovalchuk to pressure him, fakes inside and squeezes between the wall and the Habs winger to move lower in the zone and find a teammate cross-ice for a shot from the top of the circles.

Maybe the downsides outweigh the positives when it comes to Gustafsson. We’ll see what kind of offers he gets from teams in July. But one thing is certain: he would inject a healthy dose of creativity in a Habs defence corps that lacks one-on-one abilities and often limits itself to shooting pucks from the point.