The Montreal Canadiens put forth one of their better efforts in recent weeks against the Washington Capitals last night. Calling it a shutdown act is far-fetched, but for a team that was on a streak of losses that included some bang-your-head-against-the-wall outings, a cohesive team performance shines a bright light through the ambient gloom.
In stretches, the Habs proved they can still play their brand of hockey; that deep down they might be a formation worthy of hanging with some of the best ones on certain nights.
One sequence at the end of the third period specifically retained my attention.
Montreal, up 3-2, looked to defend their lead as best they could. They installed their neutral-zone trap, only sending one of their forwards to counter the passing exchanges of the Capitals.
Repeatedly, this forward managed to disturb the Caps’ defencemen in puck-moving mode. They were forced to rush their stretch-pass attempt to Alex Ovechkin, who lurked along the Habs’ blue line, still eager for a chance to score for the 700th time. Montreal anticipated the plan of the opposition, cutting the Ovi setup more than once in the sequence.
When the puck rolled deep in the Washington zone, the Habs became aggressive, but not overly so — the kind of attitude they had on their best nights in the early parts of the season. The key to their continued smother of the Caps’ attempts was their constant, early reloading to the slot as the puck moved from along the back wall of the Washington zone.
Nick Suzuki, and then Jonathan Drouin, helped limit the options of the opposition as they started their rush, causing them again to force plays that resulted in turnovers. Then Brendan Gallagher sprung from the bench and almost single-handedly stopped two other breakout attempts, the last one resulting in an icing, which turned into an offensive-zone chance for the Habs.
I picked this sequence due to its simplicity. It’s a good illustration of the effectiveness of the Habs’ forecheck when it’s executed well. Sure, the Capitals probably weren’t hitting the right options at times, and definitely lacked the urgency they possess when at the top of their game, but Montreal didn’t give them anything easy.
When the opposition only has hard choices, the defence is doing its job.
Max Domi taking chances
Max Domi is definitely playing on the edge of defence in these past few weeks. He wants to score, and that takes risk. Sometimes it doesn’t pay off — in fact, it has come back to bite him in the derrière on a few occasions — but last night, it did.
Take a look at this sequence from very early in the game.
This is the kind of play for which an overhead view of the ice would have allowed for a more elaborate analysis. That said, we can still get a good picture of what’s going on.
Domi acts as the F1 in the defensive zone. He supports his defence in the left corner. The puck moves behind the net to the other side of the rink, so he explodes up ice, anticipating a breakout. It’s the correct decision, but Kovalchuk unfortunately misses a pass and the play aborts.
Now Paul Byron, on the exit attempt, has probably skated up on the opposite side to stretch the ice and open space for his teammates. He’s likely the player the furthest from the ensuing defensive scramble. Yet he comes back to break a pass to the slot, ahead of Domi, and then acts as F1 for the rest of the sequence.
The centreman enters the picture a step behind, which gives him high-F responsibilities. He pressures the point, and then ... skates past his assignment, past the blue line, and into the neutral zone as the puck moves across to a Caps defencemen for a point shot.
In most situations, let’s just say this is not optimal defence, but since the blue-line shot hits shin pads and bounces to Byron, who connects with Kovalchuk, who sees Domi streaking up ice, it turns into a great scoring chance for the speedy centreman. But this isn’t the kind of play that will bring Domi success in the long run, it just happened to in this specific sequence. Maybe you can call it anticipation, but most of the time staying in the defensive zone until a clear chance to break out materializes is the correct call.
It’s a testament that sometimes making the sub-optimal choice in hockey can still lead to the best outcome. It’s why it’s hard to break certain habits for players, especially those who possess natural athletic advantages over others, like Domi with his speed. Getting a big reward like a breakaway from (literally) crossing the line defensively stays in the mind and overrides the multiple boring times where an extended defensive presence simply prevented another shot that could have been a goal, but since it never happened due to proper defensive positioning, doesn’t really get reinforced.
If you want to get really nitpicky, Domi’s overtime goal was another example of this phenomenon. It happened after an already long shift — around 50 seconds — that featured some defensive back and forth. When Domi got the puck at his blue line with his teammate changing, he decided to walk up into the offensive zone and release a shot from distance. It had no chance of scoring. But hockey happened.
The puck bounced back to him on the boards, and a lazy Caps defence left Ben Chiarot open.
If the puck had moved to Washington, which it had great odds to do because of the one-on-three situation, Domi would have been forced to go back for an extended defensive-zone presence. Even if he found a chance to change midway through an opposing rush back up the ice, his poor shot selection would still have gifted the puck to the opposition when his team had clear possession of the puck and could roll a different trio unimpended while retaining it.
Ultimately, on a game-to-game basis, only results matter. The Habs got a deserved win from Domi’s play. But this sequence and the one above are the kind of tendencies the Habs centreman will have to break if he wants to earn a positive scoring-chance differential at the end of a night’s work and become the more trusted, effective player he can be.