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Micro Analysis: Great efforts on offence undone by simple errors on defence

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The Habs had earned their lead, as they often have this season. Then failures at the most minor levels snowballed into another debacle.

New York Rangers v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

It felt inevitable. The New York Rangers scored at the end of the second period, the Montreal Canadiens lost their offensive momentum, and, once again, a two-goal lead evaporated. With it went that last thread of a playoff hope the team might still have had.

The Habs stood passively against New York’s breakout on the tying goal. They had to respect the opponents sent up all the way to the blue line, but also chose to not pressure Marc Staal and Tony DeAngelo as they brought the puck up to the neutral zone. The opposing defencemen could attack the Montreal formation with speed and send the puck to Julien Gauthier, who managed to bring it inside the zone.

This is where situational awareness and even some defensive basics failed the Habs.

There can be no pockets of open space in the defensive zone. Players can’t turn their backs to the play even for a second. Defence is stops and starts. If the puck moves, braking and striding back to an appropriate defensive angle, while always facing the play, is the way to go.

In the sequence in question, Jordan Weal turned up, probably expecting that Artemiy Panarin was going to attack the wide lane. But Panarin slowed down and set up the goal by taking advantage of the loose gap created by Weal showing his back for just a second.

Goals are often the result of domino effects. One player makes a wrong decision and everyone ends up out of position. Jeff Petry likely backed up thinking Weal would stop to occupy the space in front, and Brett Kulak’s man ultimately ended up scoring. The defenceman also skated down to pressure a play he thought would die a few feet inside the blue line.

Montreal’s confidence is very fragile these days. Players all seem to be waiting for the one bad play, the single step out of position that will cause the game to escape their hands. But up until the Rangers’ hit the scoreboard, the Habs had the upper hand. They controlled the game as much as they could for a team in their position.

They showed many positive signs. Max Domi had a better showing. He looked totally engaged in the contest right from his first shift and made up for some of his aggressive positioning with just as aggressive backchecks. Domi’s skating is a great corrective tool; as long as he keeps moving his feet, he can posture offensively and get away with it more than most other players can.

Domi also showed a renewed patience in possession. After scoring in bunches in the past few games, it’s clear he has gotten his mojo back. On the first goal of the game, there were no hope plays from him like we saw in the first half of the season. The centreman let his teammates get into position as he held possession and let them herd the defence around the slot. This afforded him space to walk up from the wall and get closer to his passing options around the crease.

His first attempt at finding a friendly stick inside traffic didn’t work, but a few seconds later, he sneakily re-attacked the slot and found himself in perfect position to set up another tap-in after receiving a pass from the point.

Of course, Domi got a favorable bounce on the ensuing goal. The puck deflected off a skate before crossing the goal line. But the centreman made his own luck. He stayed patient, not sending the puck toward the slot the first chance he got, but held on to it for a better play. Soon afterward, he moved to a dangerous area instead of waiting out wide on the wall for a pass from his defenceman like he would have done previously.

Gallagher also was instrumental in creating the goal. On the first scoring chance, like he always does, he rushed the front of the net, which collapsed the defence on him. It helped create space for Domi to advance to the slot. On the second scoring chance, his presence at the far post again forced a defenceman to scramble back to cover him. In the process, that defenceman pointed his skates toward the cage, which led to his demise as the puck bounced off of them and in.

Coaches keep hammering inside the mind of players that good things happen when you go to the net. This goal is a good example as to why. They may not score every time, but net-drives manipulate the defence and open up better chances for the attack.

Gallagher also made another great play on the Habs’ second goal by — once again—attracting the defence to himself to open up a teammate. This time it was off the rush.

As he got the puck in a breakout situation, instead of stretching the ice and skating toward the right wall, Gallagher decided to challenge both defenders in front of him. His first cross-over was in the direction of the opponent pursuing Tomas Tatar. That opponent reached for the puck, and it slowed him down enough for Tatar to separate from the backcheck. Gallagher continued his course inside the range of the second defender. He evaded another pokecheck and flipped the puck past the opponent, up to his teammate now streaking alone versus the goalie.

In this situation, a player like Nick Suzuki would have likely taken the wide lane on the breakout, stretched the ice, and probably earned a three-on-two with a rush-supporting Shea Weber. But Gallagher doesn’t play the game in the same way. He has always attacked head-on, and it’s what continues to bring him success.

His penalty at the end of the game wasn’t well timed, as it sank the Habs’ chance of coming back. But it’s easy to understand his frustration boiling over at this point, with his best efforts continuously falling short of earning his team wins.