One of my main takeaways from the Montreal Canadiens’ exhibition game versus the Toronto Maple Leafs was that the Habs didn’t involve their defencemen enough in the attack. The blue-liners missed opportunities to jump up on breakouts to receive cross-ice passes from forwards, which would have helped the team pierce the neutral-zone trap. And the times they did support the offence, the forwards put on blinders and missed the occasions to drop the puck to them for scoring opportunities.
Here are two occasions in the previous game where defencemen could have helped push the play forward. In the first one, Nick Suzuki expected Shea Weber to have joined the rush in support, but ended up passing to no one. In the second one, Brendan Gallagher didn’t see Victor Mete behind him, who could have gotten a shot from the top of the circle with a simple drop-pass.
I hoped to see the Habs involve their defencemen more versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the same problem continued. Blue-liners played extra safe. They didn’t look to skate up until they met a defensive line. They simply threw the puck to forwards gunning in the neutral zone. The safe strategy helped limit odd-man rushes, but also forced the Habs to play defence over and over again, and they accumulated quite the negative shot differential early.
Yet as the game went on, the breakouts got better and better. Then the overtime period gave the team the greatest lesson in the value of using defencemen in support. Purely by accident, following a rush from the Danault line, the puck ended up deflecting back to Jeff Petry.
The Penguins’ defence got dragged low by the rush. Space opened up at the top of the zone and Petry, a defenceman with a forward’s skill set, took it. As soon as he pulled the puck toward him, the positioning of goaltender Matt Murray became completely off; the right side of his net opened up, and Petry fired there for the goal.
Montreal can’t spend a full period in their zone and expect to win another game versus a vindictive Penguins team. They need to continue looking for shooting opportunities at the top of the zone for their back end. They also need to use them in transition to create more consistent offence.
Gone are the days of attacking with three players. Now teams have to overload their offence and bring a fourth and a fifth player if they are to break through the opposing defence.