A tale of two plays
A few hours before the Montreal Canadiens hit the ice, the Dallas Stars faced the same scenario that the Habs would encounter later that night. Down a goal with under a minute to play, the Stars managed to conjure a tying marker that would eventually save them from a 3-1 series deficit.
Our story begins as Tyler Seguin receives the puck by the half-wall. Watched by Milan Lucic, Seguin takes an extra stride to draw Lucic in before dishing back to John Klingberg. Klingberg, who has glided through the Calgary Flames’ defensive formation, takes the puck in a not-particularly dangerous area, but, importantly, with a lot of space.
As Lucic rushes back to his original post, Klingberg moves counter to the Flames forward’s momentum. When the Stars defender first opens up to shoot, he’s looking at a more central lane to the net. Lucic recognizes this and moves to seal it off. In response, Klingberg simply keeps drifting, sidestepping the blockade. Now Lucic is caught, and must execute a full stop and reverse.
At the same time, Seguin has drifted toward the net, forcing Mark Giordano to be aware of his presence at the near side. When Klingberg lets the puck loose, Giordano anticipates a shot-pass to Seguin, or an attempt to place a rebound near him, and shifts his body to his left accordingly.
This creates a seam between the out-of-position Lucic and a Giordano who is cheating to his left. Klingberg hits this seam and hits his target — not the back of the net, but the area right in front of it. Seeing that the closest three players to netminder Cam Talbot are all wearing green, Klingberg’s mission is simply to get the puck beyond Calgary’s two lines of defence. The soft wrister goes through everyone, bounces off Talbot’s pad, and lands right in Joe Pavelski’s wheelhouse. Tie game.
Close but no cigar
With a minute-and-a-half to go in Game 3 against the Philadelphia Flyers and Carey Price pulled for an extra attacker, Tomas Tatar received the puck, much like Seguin had, on the half-wall. Looking up and seeing the Flyers actively cheating on the Canadiens’ high trio of Tatar, Shea Weber, and Jeff Petry, Tatar swings the puck down low to Jonathan Drouin.
When he receives the puck, Drouin has a three-on-one with Jesperi Kotkaniemi in the slot and Nick Suzuki waiting on the back post. However, Drouin also receives the puck in a position where he’s not capable of making an immediate play. As such, he double-clutches and forces a pass only when he sees Justin Braun, the lone Philadelphia defender, fall down. Braun’s stick blocks the pass, and the retreating Flyers are able to clear the zone.
Here, better recognition would have likely resulted in at least a shot on Carter Hart. Drouin needs to understand the situation prior to receiving the pass, which would mean taking a step forward to open a lane to Suzuki instead of sitting on the goal line.
At the same time, both rookies, and especially Suzuki, could also have taken action to create options for Drouin. Kotkaniemi could have backed off Braun to reduce the amount of congestion for a cross-crease pass, or he could have tied Braun up, serving as a decoy and preventing Braun from acting to block any pass. Suzuki, who stayed rooted to the back post throughout, could have taken a step out to create a lane through Kotkaniemi’s legs once he recognized Drouin’s situation.
More repetition, better recognition
Both sequences highlighted here are the product of set plays. Coaching schemes brought three green shirts to Talbot’s doorstep and three red ones to Hart’s front porch. However, the end result for the Habs, in sharp contrast to the Dallas example where Klingberg and Seguin both acted independently to apply pressure on the defenders, was that all three players stayed in their posts rather than adapting to changing on-ice situations, and the play came to nothing. Yes, Drouin’s pass hitting Braun’s stick is a piece of bad luck, but once again, sometimes you have to make your own luck; Braun’s stick wouldn’t have been in Drouin’s path had the Canadiens taken action to open better lanes.
Fortunately for the Canadiens, these are things that can come with experience, practice, and, above all else, confidence. Reaching that next level may not come in this series, but the hope is that it will come in the next year or two.