In this unique NHL season the schedule is filled with multiple series, pitting two teams against each other in the same building multiple times. It’s something that rarely happens in the NHL in a typical year, where the schedule usually consists of teams traveling from city to city to play one game at a time, and hosting a sequence of clubs on their homestands.
The format is more akin to a playoff round, where (good) coaches are constantly adjusting to the events on the ice, exploiting weaknesses on opposing teams and shoring up their own with replacement players or tweaked strategies.
Going into the first three-game series of the season, the Montreal Canadiens were feeling very confident that they’d come up with a solid penalty-killing strategy. The plan for the opening three games was to essentially stack four players in the slot and prevent any cross-ice passes in the zone. It was somewhat effective against the Toronto Maple Leafs to start the year, even if a late breakdown in the second period allowed two power-play goals. Many of the issues in that game seemed to be the result of just getting back up to game speed to begin a new year. The penalty kill looked extremely effective in the two-game set with the Edmonton Oilers, when the host team was completely neutralized by the tactic, going zero-for-10 while up a man.
In the first game in Vancouver, the strategy was exposed by a different approach. The Canucks’ game plan was to set up a triangle below the left hashmarks, giving each of three players two passing lanes to create a scoring chance. Since Montreal was focused on keeping passes from crossing the ice, they weren’t prepared to defend a play that didn’t require such a pass, and Vancouver capitalized.
Bo Horvat’s second power-play goal on Wednesday is the best illustration of just how overpowering the alignment could be against just a single defender.
After the perfect performance versus the Oilers, the penalty kill allowed three goals to the Canucks in the first game of the series. The goals kept the Canucks in a game they were mostly being putplayed, and saw them come out on top at the end of the night.
Taking six minor penalties in the game, the coaching staff felt that the solution was to just limit the chances the opponent had with an extra man; leave the strategy in place, but hope the penalty kill wasn’t called on as much in the second contest.
That didn’t really happen in the middle game, with Vancouver still receiving five chances to outnumber the Habs. Only one goal was given up in that situation, but it was from a familiar setup.
‘Fool me twice, shame on me,’ the coaching staff must have said after the game. With a full day to evaluate what had taken place in the first two matches, the plan was altered slightly for Saturday’s finale.
On the first power play of the game, the Canucks once again tried to get the players in the zone set up to create the down-low three-on-one at the side of the net. This time, from what started out as the same stacked positioning the Canadiens had been using since the season-opener, Nick Suzuki was having none of the half-wall quarterback getting his bearings below the hash marks. Jeff Petry stepped up to take away the immediate threat of a lateral pass to Horvat, Artturi Lehkonen, monitoring the situation, stepped in to break up the play that did come, and Alexander Romanov sent the puck down the ice.
Videos clipped by David St-Louis
For what would have been a three-on-one against Petry two nights earlier, the Canadiens evened up the manpower in the quadrant of the ice Vancouver had been feasting on all series long, turning a lethal setup into one more easily handled. With this adjustment made, the penalty kill went three-for-three on the night, the opponent was held to its lowest goal total in the series, and Montreal earned the win.
In this particularly case, it wasn’t just about Montreal reacting to the strategy of the opponent to shut it down, but recognizing just how effective it was and trying to incorporate it into its own game.
Near the end of Thursday’s contest, with the game firmly in hand, Montreal tried to set up the same play on a power-play of their own.
Unlike the Canucks, they hadn’t been practising the play in training camp, and only had the idea to work from withouth the strategy to set it up. Suzuki was too high to draw a defenceman out of position, and Tyler Toffoli was more to the middle of the ice than to the side to find a pocket of space, and the chance was ultimately thwarted rather easily. It’s something the Canadiens players took notice of while watching the other team find success with it, and tried to mimic it to get some offence of their own.
At the start of a three-game series, the Canadiens were beaten by a specific tactic from the opposition. Montreal identified Vancouver’s main weapon and came up with a plan to counter it, and as a result they head home with five of a possible six points and a new element to work into their own game. Perhaps we will see a more refined verion of the play when they return to the ice on Thursday, when a new team will offer new challenges to overcome, and perhaps borrow for themselves.