Joel Armia has continued to impress me this season. If you go back and look at some of the early editions of this series, I wasn’t convinced of the impact he would make in a top-nine role, let alone a top-six one. But it’s fair to say that the Finnish forward has quieted most doubts.
Maybe it’s his elevated confidence, but the winger now seems to try plays he wouldn’t even have thought about last season, like the zone entry in the video below. He supported Nick Suzuki on the breakout and received a lob-pass from the rookie. Then, one-on-one with a defender in between blue lines, he extended the puck to his right, baiting the defender into crossing over that way, only to drag it in front of his skates and back the other way. The move bought him enough space to gain the zone. He then followed his play by passing laterally to Suzuki skating up in support before rushing the net.
More than his five-on-five play, it’s Armia prowess on the penalty kill that impressed against the Devils. He repeatedly intercepted the puck, stopping opposing breakout attempts and even scoring out of one of his steals.
While the New Jersey forwards sometimes made it easy for him with how disorganized they were, there’s a technique to Armia’s puck steals. It’s a fine art that he has honed through the years, as he evolved from a skill-oriented forward to more of a defensive force in his first years in the NHL.
Where other defenders only probe with their stick when trying to stop the opposition. Armia uses his whole body. He makes himself big in passing lanes, turning his skates to further clog them. When the puck hits him, he immediately turns his back to opponents to protect it and establish possession. He may not be overly speedy as he takes off up the ice on a counter rush, but his frame, and the way he uses it, makes it hard for defenders to move around him to get the puck back.
Tomas Tatar’s F3 woes
Tomas Tatar is at the centre of many conversations regarding the trade deadline plans of the Montreal Canadiens. At this point of his career he’s a known quantity. Eight seasons of NHL experience, including five 20-goal campaigns, make him an enticing target for any contending team looking to add a top-six winger.
That being said, any organizations interested in his services have likely been doing extra scouting work on him in these past few weeks, and Tatar’s recent play has gone through ups and downs, following the general trend of the team.
He’s shown his usual strengths: his high-energy play, his above-average skill level, and his distinctive ability to keep or steal the puck back under pressure. He also reminded everyone of his powerful release in-stride, scoring against the Columbus Blue Jackets with a laser beam as he skated toward the net.
Last night he served as a screen on Christian Folin’s goal, the one that elevated Montreal ahead of New Jersey for the first time in the game, showing he isn’t afraid to battle in front of the net.
Tatar combines technical ability with a competitive, north-south style of hockey. He’s not a player who needs sheltering, but one who can integrate himself on most lines given a chance.
But there’s also the occasional mental lapse when the Slovak is too aggressive, and they have been on display in the past two games. In those cases, he takes penalties or loses his awareness of the play, chaining defensive mistakes.
Against the Blue Jackets and the Devils, Tatar struggled in the F3 role on the forecheck. He was the main culprit on Pierre-Luc Dubois’s breakaway goal three days ago, and continued to make similar errors even after this most egregious one.
Tatar has simply been overly eager to get scoring chances, forfeiting defensive positioning on the off chance that the puck will spring loose and connect with his stick.
The Habs’ forechecking system — and all other NHL system for that matter — asks of the high forward (F3) that he covers for defencemen coming down to pressure the breakout on the walls. But when his defencemen pinched down the wall in recent games, Tatar has either descended too close to the scrum, forgetting his man behind, or moved late to exchange positioning, leaving opposing players open at the top of the zone. He also aggressively jumped down looking to create a turnover or to capitalize on a rebound when he had to hold the line of defence.
In other words, Tatar has been the source of more than his fair share of odd-man rushes against recently. With a couple of passes, the opposition easily moved around him to escape down the ice, sometimes to face a lone Habs defender. The winger’s mistakes were made worse by his inability to pick up the right assignments once he caught up to the rush in his zone, like identifying a trailing opponent to cover.
He has been an important and consistent member of the Habs’ top line this season, and he has been rewarded with the best season of his career. That being said, his success came as a direct result of his ability to shut down the opposition and create offence off turnovers. It’s how some of his best scoring chances were generated in the last couple of games. No matter what happens for him in the next couple of weeks, it’s best for the Habs’ top scorer to not forget his identity and what drives his success.