Game 3 wasn’t exactly exciting to watch. The action only happened in flashes, and really, any one bounce could have decided the winner. There is usually a contest like that in a playoff series, especially when two teams play a similar type of game. The Philadelphia Flyers and the Montreal Canadiens use different types of systems, but at their core they mirror each other; they work hard and earn their goals.
The truth is that it’s hard for any team in the league to maintain a high pace of play, a perfect cohesiveness, and a high conversion rate, like we saw out of Montreal on Friday, for every single contest. The Canadiens were still on top of their game, but lacked the extra little drop of intensity to break the dam and make it impossible for the Flyers to contain the flow of their play.
In the end, a faceoff trick, a simple play designed on a white board by an inspired member of the Flyers’ staff, won the opposition the game. A pick (also called “legal” interference), and a switch between the wingers confused the Habs’ defence and gave Philadelphia the necessary opening to get to the net.
As you watch the video, first focus on Paul Byron. As happens off every lost defensive faceoff, the winger tried to sprint off his position to pressure the opposing defencemen, but Giroux slowed him down and angled him on a collision course with Sean Couturier, further impeding the forward’s race to the top of the zone. But what really caused problems on that draw were Giroux and Robert Hagg. The right-winger moved to the wall and the left-winger to the net, which runs contrary to what we usually see in offensive-zone faceoff wins.
Ben Chiarot would usually attach himself to Giroux, or another player, moving to the net, but as no one immediately came to challenge him in the blue paint, the defenceman ended up hesitating and mirroring the path of the opposing winger. He left his net-front guard for a second, which allowed Hagg to slip by and get his stick on a shot-pass from Giroux. The puck flew in a perfect arc to land right in the path of Jakub Voracek and enter the top of the net.
Compare this first faceoff to another, more straightforward one that happened in a previous game. The puck is similarly won by the Flyers with the help of their wall winger, who redirected it toward his left defenceman. But unlike the trick play above, the other winger — the one closer to the net — immediately pounced toward Chiarot in front of the blue paint, while the wall winger moved at the top of the zone inside space. The Habs absorbed the attackers quite easily on this play and stopped any dangerous scoring chances.
In a way, faceoffs are where hockey ressembles football the most. The Flyers have a playbook filled with a few different strategies on won draws. For Montreal, it’s all about making the right reads based on the positioning of the players before the puck-drop and right after.
An inability to correctly sort out checks in that situation ended up costing the Canadiens the game. It shouldn’t have — it’s one goal against — but it’s the playoffs. The margin for error is reduced.
The good news for the Habs is that some difference-makers are rising in their ranks. Jesperi Kotkaniemi had another inspired performance. He again imposed himself as a physical presence and two of his shots from the top of the slot hit the crossbar.
But it was a short sequence that captured my attention. Actually, it was a single touch of the puck.
Kotkaniemi circled up in the offensive zone and presented his stick to his defenceman at the point. Instead of receiving the puck in front of his body, which would have immediately had the nearest defenceman angle him out of the slot, the Finnish centreman made sure to delay his catch. He stopped the puck in his hip pocket, on the left side of his body. By doing that, he knew that he would invite the defender to lunge at the puck, which would imbalance him for half a second, in turn creating the necessary space to escape the check.
That’s a good example of Kotkaniemi’s offensive habits, instinct, and his ability to think ahead. He receives pucks in ways that set up his next play more often than his counterparts. He also showed that talent on his second goal on Friday.
On that play, he redirected the pass of Victor Mete softly in front of him, then looked to his left to see an incoming defender, but didn’t immediately move the puck out of the way of the opponent. He waited for him to commit to his route. Only when the defender couldn’t correct his course did Kotkaniemi drag the disc back, away from the opposing stick, to load his shot.
The centreman drove the play much more effectively than his linemates on Sunday night. His wingers will have to step up if the Habs are to tie the series on Tuesday.