The number-one item on the Montreal Canadiens’ strategy board before Game 2 of their series versus the Philadelphia Flyers: start strong and set the tone. And they did, scoring a minute into the game. The team dictated the flow of the play, shut down the Flyers, and counter-attacked with speed. It was typical Habs hockey.
The first minute of Game 2 might as well have been an ode to Claude Julien’s coaching. Every strategical element that he has preached in the past three-and-a-half years was on display: the systems, the offensive and defensive mentalities, and most of all, the heart and the hard work. Players bought into the coach’s philosophy, and they got rewarded for it. Hopefully, it put a smile on the head coach’s face as he was resting at home.
Right at the drop of the puck, Phillip Danault’s line quickly overwhelmed Philadelphia with timely pressure and support. On two occasions the orange men crashed against the neutral-zone wall formed by the Habs trio. The Flyers ended up settling for a corner dump, which they recovered, but couldn’t manage to turn into meaningful offence. Regrouped into their defensive formation, Montreal kept the attackers to the outside with controlled aggression, engaging hard but without overextending.
The Habs regained the puck and escaped the defensive end with speed. Paul Byron then pulled off one of the best rush efforts I have seen this season — quite ironic considering my last article analyzed the inability of the winger to translate his athletic qualities into offensive-zone entries.
On that spectacular play, Byron chained all of the elements I accused him of missing. He used the space created by the speed of his teammates that pushed back the line of defence, changed lanes and forced defenders to adjust, adapted his speed to maximize the available ice, and held on to the puck, waiting for the opponent to overcommit.
For a full breakdown of the sequence, see the video at the end of the article.
The diminutive winger didn’t try to enter along the walls; a much easier task. With a flash of skill, he beat a pouncing defender, broke in straight through the defensive formation, and gained the middle of the offensive zone.
So, it’s not that Byron can’t spice up his rushing game. It just seems that he prefers to pick his spots. Maybe he’s a player who needs the extra fuel of emotionally charged playoff games. Whatever the case, his entry earned him an immediate scoring chance from the slot and hopefully this reward gives him a thirst for audacity.
In the seconds following Byron’s chance, the Habs continued to aggressively challenge the Flyers, pressuring them on the breakout and regaining the offensive zone with a rapid stretch-pass as Philadelphia changed lines, which led to the first goal of the game.
Luck played its part in that goal. The puck bounced on the pad of Carter Hart in such a way that it avoided all opposing skates and fell directly toward the blade of an eager Tomas Tatar. But the trio on the ice summoned that luck by making a ton of great plays prior to the deflection.
It started with Nick Suzuki. In yesterday’s article, I also talked about skating habits. Receiving the puck in stride is one of those important habits. If the centreman had stood still at the blue line, he would never have been able to get across it with possession, which means his shot would never have been redirected into the corner, and Brendan Gallagher would not have gotten to it.
On the retrieval, #11 took an odd, but creative route. An average player in that sequence would have picked up the puck on his forehand and skated it up the wall before cutting back down to shake the defender. But Gallagher is not your average player; he has no problem rushing head-first toward the net while getting whacked by sticks, and apparently he has developed a new retrieval and evasion tactic that involves spinning, backhanding the puck to himself, and bouncing off the wall with his rear-end to accelerate away.
As Gallagher confounded the defence, Suzuki didn’t anchor himself in front of the net, which would have had him standing still surrounded by defenders. He immediately looked to space out and support the play by becoming an outlet below the goal line.
Of course, that wasn’t where #11 aimed to carry the puck; Gallagher always goes to the net and Suzuki will learn that. Still, the centreman shifting deeper in the zone remained instrumental to the goal. Why? Because he carried his defender away from the front of the cage, freeing space for Tatar’s arrival.
A few seconds prior to Gallagher’s net-drive, Tatar had moved up to the top of the zone as the puck was redirected to the corner. By sliding high, #90 protected his team if a turnover happened and allowed himself to come down deceptively to the slot, behind the backs of defenders, as his teammate attacked the blue paint. As the shot rebounded to the slot, Tatar found himself in a perfect position to score.
Suzuki’s strong habits and supporting ability, Tatar’s dependability and timing, and Gallagher’s initiative and gutsiness combined to create the first goal of the game. This sequence perfectly exemplifies what the three elements of this new trio can bring to each other if, or more optimistically, when, their chemistry fully forms.
Friday’s win was a full-on team effort. The work of Danault’s line before Suzuki’s came into the picture contributed just as much to the first goal. It’s Danault, Lehkonen and Byron who countered the Flyers’ first attack and brought the puck in, allowing for a favourable change.
Here’s a full video breakdown of the minute that preceded Tatar’s goal, showing how the great execution of plenty of little elements helped the Habs open the scoring.
Playing such a collective, engaged, support-heavy style of game demands a lot of the team, but it is exactly how the Habs could steal this series from the Flyers.