At the start of the series, many thought that the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers were very similar teams. Both squads featured well-rounded forward corps, top-four blue-line cores, and outstanding goaltenders. It was expected though that the Flyers were a better version of the Canadiens, and would be able to defeat them in a head-to-head clash.
That projection changed after Game 2, when the Canadiens handed the Flyers a decisive 5-0 loss. In the face of new concerns as to whether the Flyers could handle the high-flying Canadiens, head coach Alain Vigneault went to Plan B.
The Philadelphia team that hit the ice for Game 3 was not interested in trading chances with the Canadiens. Instead, they channeled the spirits of Vigneault’s old New York Rangers charges, blocking shots, directing play toward the boards, and turning the neutral zone into Autoroute 40. Rather than create, the Flyers sought to destroy, beliving that their fortunes would be better off capitalizing off Montreal’s mistakes.
The results of Vigneault’s pivot are plainly evident: 120 minutes, zero goals against, two wins. They’re also showing up beyond the scoreboard as well. During the abbreviated regular season at five-on-five, the Canadiens saw 54% of their attempts at the net actually register as shots on goal. Against the Pittsburgh Penguins, that conversion rate was 52%. Through four games against Philadelphia, it’s down to 42%. In Game 3, it was 31%.
More strikingly, Vigneault’s adjustments have dramatically neutered the Canadiens’ ability to generate scoring chances. Forty-six percent of Montreal’s shot attempts at goal during five-on-five play were from scoring chance regions. That number was a respectable 42% against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was an astonishing 57% during Games 1 and 2 against the Flyers. Since then? Thirty-two percent.
Vigneault’s adjustments assume that the Canadiens have no Plan B on offence. If you take away their shooting lanes, they will continue to fling pucks into shinpads rather than adjusting the angle. If you take away their passing lanes, they will dither with the puck rather than move to create new ones. If you take away their controlled zone entries, they will dump and chase — where your team has the advantage — rather than creating coverage gaps through movement.
The Flyers’ smothering anti-hockey is also testing the mental fortitude of the Canadiens. Faced with repeated rejections, especially in trailing situations, the Habs are no longer playing naturally, and as their frustration grows, the dam gets creakier and creakier. When they get chances, the stick is squeezed a little tighter, the mind wanders a little more, and the puck hops over a stick or is shot over a crossbar.
In response to Vigneault, Kirk Muller and his staff have managed little except to pull Michel Therrien’s old line blender out of storage. But no matter how you draw up the lines, the Canadiens are designed and drilled to play more or less the same brand of hockey, from forward one to forward 12.
Muller and his associates have a scant 24 hours to devise a proper response to Vigneault’s plan, or the Canadiens will have dashed the hopes of their supporters against the rocks prior to leaving port.