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Offensive creativity led the Canadiens’ comeback

With their usual strategies thwarted, Montreal used a lot more skill to get back in the game, and pull out a win.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Montreal Canadiens - Game Three Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Wednesday night’s Game 3 was pleasing to watch. And not just because the Montreal Canadiens won an action-filled, back-and-forth, tense contest against the Pittsburgh Penguins. What made it satisfying was the manner in which the team pulled off the victory: the extra offensive efforts, the touch of boldness, and the much-needed offensive creativity.

If you’ve been following my work for the past year, you probably have seen me write a ton about the Habs’ offence. You’ve read article after article hammering on the same strategic points, principles that I reiterated yet another time in a series of analysis before the play-in series.

Control should be the operative word for the Montreal Canadiens’ offence. By practicing patience and puck rotations, by building scoring chances instead of hoping for a generous bounce, the Canadiens could instill more creativity and diversity in their offence and make themselves harder to shut down. A play-in series against a rusty defence that lacks timing and coordination is the perfect setting for the Habs offence to get away from this ‘‘get it on net’’ mentality to start cycling the puck and manufacturing breakdowns.

Too often, Montreal defencemen are guilty of firing the puck on net as soon as they get it at the blue line. Forwards stack the front of the net and try to get a piece of the disc as it flies to the cage or rebounds to the slot. The strategy sometimes works, but better offensive teams look to sustain the offence; they move the defence around, create breakdowns, and find dangerous plays in the middle of the ice.

Of course, the Habs are not the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Tampa Bay Lightning. There is no Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, or Victor Hedman in Montreal. But the team more than not meets the talent requirement to play a similar offensive strategy, one that breathes and flows. Talent helps, but adopting a possession style of offence is more a matter of puck management than one of pure skill.

Every time a player gets the puck inside space in the offensive zone, he is faced with a choice: go for the hope play and send it into traffic, or continue moving it into open areas to stress the defence and build a bigger and bigger advantage.

Ben Chiarot and Shea Weber usually choose the first option. They are content playing the odds, firing on net as soon as they receive a pass at the top of the zone. But last night, they decided to test the Penguins.

Weber opened the scoring by activating in the rush — a commendable decision — but this is not even the goal I have in mind. On Jonathan Drouin’s marker, Chiarot got the puck at the point, but instead of turning to slap it on net, he cycled it back down to his forwards. Then Weber received possession back at the blue line. He could have sent the puck down on the strong side, the crowded one of the ice, or fired it toward the net through a bunch of bodies. But he didn’t. He attracted the defence and passed the puck laterally, into space to his defensive partner.

Chiarot used the open ice. He received in motion, as to further separate from the high checking forwards, got his head up, took a few steps down the wall, and shifted his weight to his inside foot — again not to fire at a set goalie. In his lateral movement, he spotted Jonathan Drouin right at the doorstep and snapped a pass toward his teammate for the goal.

Chiarot is often regarded as a defensive defenceman, but he is mobile. With a touch of space and confidence, he is a perfectly capable offensive engine. He showed it again on the fourth goal when he locked his offensive rhythm to that of Jeff Petry.

In that sequence, the Habs’ right-handed quarterback received the puck at the top of the zone. Usually this would signal to the forwards the need to stack the front of the net to tip a shot from the blue-liner, but as the puck moved low-to-high, Drouin instead remained on the weak-side wall.

Seeing no net-front presence, and his winger open for a pass, Petry first dragged the defence laterally, away from his teammate, and fed him the puck. The space created by the defencemen’s movement allowed Drouin to skate up and cycle the puck back down to Phillip Danault, who brought it back up and connected with Chiarot with a pass.

In the meantime, Petry hid behind the defence on the other side of the zone. Chiarot sent the puck to him, and with a clever shot off the mask of Matt Murray, his partner scored the game-winning goal. Had he wanted to pass, Danault also skated to the slot as a one-timer option.

As the Habs confused the defence by pulling it high and making it spin, Petry had time to calculate his play. Defenders lost their assignments, became puck-focused, and forgot about the Habs defenceman. It wasn’t the much-maligned Jack Johnson on the ice this time, but the Penguins’ first pairing of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin accompanied by Zach Aston-Reese, one of the better defensive forwards in the league.

Game 3 could have been a one-off for Montreal, a single showing of flow and creativity created by special circumstances that never reappears again in this series or in the next season. Or it could be the start of a different offence, one that weaponizes space, involves defencemen, and holds its fire until the right time — one way more fun and exciting to watch.