After a frustrating night skating into the cheval de frise the Philadelphia Flyers placed in the neutral zone on Sunday, the Montreal Canadiens needed to approach the offence differently in Game 4. Simply trying to beat that neutral-zone trap one-on-one (or, more accurately, one-on-four) wasn’t working, and there needed to be a new strategy to get past the defences.
From the opening faceoff, it was clear that this was going to be another measured game from both teams. Initial passes were tentative, zone entry attempts probing to see if the defence was just as tough as it had been last game, and no player wanted to give up any ice and be responsible for the all-important opening goal.
The Flyers were the team getting the first shots on goal. Few of them were particularly dangerous, but they clearly had the upper hand in the early going, and the Canadiens weren’t showing the intensity they needed to get out to an early lead ot prevent Philadelphia from settling into its defensive formation.
It wasn’t long before that slight advantage in play turned into a major one for Philadelphia. Promoted to Claude Giroux’s spot on the top line ahead of the game, Michael Raffl was given too much ice to work with when a Montreal transition was halted at the blue line. He had plenty of room to load up with no interfence, and a perfect shot entered the far top corner.
Montreal’s best player in the series, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, tried to get the goal back with an individual effort. Getting around three players proved to be too much — as it has on the majority of the Canadiens’ attempted rushes — and the centre got called for a trip when he tried win the puck back after having his momentum stopped.
The combination of Montreal’s strong penalty kill and a non-creative Flyers power play allowed Kotkaniemi to serve his sentence in its entirety, and Montreal tried to get back in the game. In the first period that often meant having one defenceman cheat toward the offensive zone trying to keep the puck on the offensive half of the ice, and they gave up a few odd-man rushes as a result. Either good defensive plays or poor passing from the Flyers thwarted those chances, and Montreal quickly learned that that strategy wasn’t going to work.
The best chance Montreal had came when Nick Suzuki made a great read to jump past a Flyers forward and intercept the back-pass he attempted to his defenceman. Suzuki turned and found a wide-open Max Domi in about the same spot with the same amount of space as Raffl had used to open the scoring, but Domi was unable to accept the pass, and the play resulted in nothing. The Canadiens went into the intermission down a goal, with the Flyers already established in their neutral-zone trap prepared to simply play out the final 40 minutes.
And play them out they did. The neutral zone proved nearly impossible to navigate, forcing the Habs to the walls, which is precisely what the Flyers were hoping for. The cycle was ineffective for Montreal as the opponent simply pinned players on the boards and took their passing options away. And that was only on the rare occasions the Habs penetrated the blue line in the first place.
Seeing his club unable to generate any offence for four periods, Kirk Muller abandoned the whole concept of forward lines and just sent out various permutations of three forwards. The interim head coach certainly liked what he was seeing from a fourth line consisting of Alex Belzile, Jake Evans, and Joel Armia, and tried to kickstart other players by adding their jump to different lines.
Montreal’s best looks came when a defenceman simply bypassed all the closely checked forwards and carried the puck into the zone himself. Jeff Petry was the best at accomplishing that in Game 4, especially on the first of two power-play opportunities the Canadiens were presented with midway through the second.
As they were still finding a way to create a goal of their own, they saw the lead get extended to two. Philippe Myers got the puck near the wall in the Canadiens zone, and flipped a shot to the net that Price prepared to turn aside into the corner, Unfortunately for the Habs, the shot fluttered off the stick of Brett Kulak, causing it to bounce on its way to the net. Instead of hitting Price’s stick blade and getting swept away, it jumped up above his pad, deflected off the shaft of his stick just under his blocker, and into the net.
Despite turning up the blender to purée, no forward trio had the ability to penetrate the offensive zone on its own in the third. Kotkaniemi and Suzuki took to the ice together on a few shifts, placing the two most creative players on the team together, but also combining two lines into one. Part of the fallout from that move was getting two of their original wingers benched: Jonathan Drouin and, surprisingly, Brendan Gallagher.
Gallagher was displeased with the move, as his comments made clear in his availabiltiy at the conclusion of the 2-0 loss — a second consecutive shutout performance. The player who leads the Habs in shots and scoring chances this series was largely unable to help his team cut into the deficit in the third period until a long presence right at the end. He and Drouin finished with the lowest ice time of any players who started the game in the top nine, at 13:07.
The question will be how both respond to those lengthy stints on the sidelines in Wedneday’s Game 5 — or even if they can have the response Muller is obviously hoping for. Through four games, we’ve learned that leaving things up to the forwards isn’t the answer, and the defencemen are critical to the offensive game. But there is still more effort that Drouin can give, more jam that Gallagher can provide, and more focus that the forwards can show to make sure the few breaks they do create result in scoring opportunities. There are improvements left to be made, and they will have to be made if the Canadiens hope to win Wednesday’s game to stay in the series.