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The Canadiens finally stopped sabotaging their rush attempts in the third period

After playing right into the Penguins’ trap for 40 minutes, Montreal used more effective strategies in the final frame.

Montreal Canadiens v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game One Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

Game 2 of the series between the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins was about as disjointed as NHL hockey can get. The puck bounced up and down the ice and teams stumbled on their scoring chances more than they created them. Because there were so few of them, every clean occasion to actually build the offence became incredibly precious.

Normally, Montreal is the team that comes out ahead in this sort of chaotic matchup. They create turnovers, organize their rush, and pierce through the offensive zone to attack the net. But last night, for most of the game, they played shy. They didn’t trust their speed and they didn’t challenge the neutral-zone trap of the Penguins, content to simply chase after dumped pucks. At least until the third period, when Pittsburgh sat back a bit more and the Habs grew in confidence — or desperation.

I know what the team was trying to do: They played safe. They preferred dumping the puck instead of risking turning it over in between blue lines. An honorable strategy, but also the reason why they were left off the scoreboard for the majority of the game.

Mikael Nahabedian, a data analyst for McGill University — someone you should all follow on Twitter — has been tracking the zone entries (and the zone exits) of the Habs and other teams in this play-in series, and Montreal’s results haven’t been impressive. For the most part, in this Game 2, the team failed at carrying the puck across the offensive blue line or dumped it in against the pressure of the Penguins’ trap.

I broke down the neutral-zone forecheck of Pittsburgh in this article last week. It’s a common but effective 1-2-2 that steers the attack to one side of the ice and then collapses on that half as the rush arrives.

At times in Monday’s game, Pittsburgh’s neutral-zone play simply shut down Montreal. They were prepared to receive the attack and they suffocated it with timely pressure. And that’s fine for the attacking team; not all rushes will break through in a game. But the bleu-blanc-rouge also squandered many opportunities by making poor or rushed decisions. Even if attackers managed to break into the offensive zone, their plays were limited once they got there because of previous sub-par rush positioning.

Three problems plagued the team: a lack of spacing, an over-use of the strong side, and not challenging the defenders. Take a look at some of the rushes I clipped:

Weirdly, in Game 2, forwards grouped themselves in the neutral-zone. More than once, they skated up to meet and even bump the puck-carrier, and brought their defender with them. This lack of spacing forced the carrier to dangle through an even larger defensive wall. In those conditions, pretty much only Max Domi and his swift feet and hands managed to pull off entries.

The Habs also forced dump-in entries by sending the puck up to a forward stationed at the blue line when they could have used that same forward as a decoy. In the first clip below, Jeff Petry could have angled his body like he was passing to that anchored forward and, once he dragged the forecheck to that side of the ice, sent a pass to either of two forwards accelerating into space on the opposite half.

Lastly, Montreal played with too much restraint. Even when they had the numerical advantage, some of their players refused to challenge defenders. Instead of skating up until they met pressure, until they could attract the defence on themselves and free teammates in other lanes, they passed early to their covered linemates.

In the third period, the Habs started holding on to the puck more as they attacked the neutral-zone formation. They attacked as a group, filled multiple lanes, and used the weak side of the ice more. Plus, the puck-carrier waited until he attracted the defence to himself before passing to teammates in other lanes.

The team doesn’t have to be shy in their rush attacks. They might not have the pure skill of the Penguins, but their rapid forwards and shiftier defencemen, like Victor Mete, Kulak, and Petry can definitely break the trap to create more and better offence.

Of course, the team runs the risk of getting overzealous in their attacking mentality — it happened to Kulak right after his great rush effort at the end of the game — but if the Habs only sit back and hope the goals will come, they will instead find themselves sitting back and hoping for the first overall pick as soon as next week....