If hockey players are familiar with one thing, it’s working through adversity. In fact, rumour has it that “we’ve just gotta put our heads down and get through it” are the first words out of a hockey player’s mouth after “mama” and “dada.”
Well, the Montreal Canadiens organization have certainly been familiar with adversity this year, so they’ve defaulted to what hockey people instinctively do.
Make the safe plays.
Throw pucks on the goalie.
Go to the net.
The results will come.
Except they’ve forgotten how to even do that properly.
For effort to yield results, it must be focused toward a goal, a purpose, an ambition. Instead, the Canadiens, to a man — from the players, to the coaches, to the management — are focused more on the act of expending effort than focusing it towards any tangible aim.
The Buffalo Sabres’ second goal on Friday night is a perfect representation of the fruits of “Canadiens effort.”
On the surface, Jeff Petry makes an egregious error just inside the offensive zone. Off the ensuing turnover, the Sabres race down the ice, and Cody Eakin converts a Vinnie Hinostroza pass to give the Sabres a lead that they would not relinquish.
It’s easy to put all the blame on Petry, and it’s no secret that the Canadiens veteran hasn’t been playing to his standards this season. At the same time, no one else in the bleu-blanc-rouge covered themselves in glory.
The sequence actually starts with a good pinch by Petry to keep offensive-zone pressure alive. His momentum takes him deep into the zone, so he goes for a skate with the puck. The purpose of this action is to draw the defenders’ attention toward him, which gives his teammates time to enter the zone, get set up, and find good offensive positions.
Instead, his teammates — following the creed of “Montreal effort” — go straight to the net and stay there. As Petry rounds the net and draws the eyes of three Sabres players, there are three Habs next to Dustin Tokarski. As Petry continues to move and the three Sabres close in, there are still three Habs next to Tokarski, all looking to jump onto the rebound of a shot that cannot come.
Just before the ill-fated turnover, Petry has been left with zero options because his teammates’ efforts have amounted only to “go to the net and stay there.” Hinostroza is cutting off the pass back to the point, and there’s a blue shirt between Petry and every Canadiens player in Tokarski’s proximity.
No one has found open ice, nor is he moving to create a passing lane. No Canadiens player is close enough to provide any semblance of puck support for Petry.
This is Petry’s reward for attempting to create something.
Should he shoot at the mass, risk a blocked shot and an odd-man rush?
Should he try to saucer it over Hinostroza’s stick back to the point, recognizing that the pass could be batted down or bounce over Ben Chiarot’s stick?
Should he softly dump it into the corner, effectively throwing away possession as a Sabres player will be first onto it?
Still, Petry understands that the Canadiens have to create offence in order to win hockey games. So he makes one more attempt to create space for himself, stopping up and moving forward in an attempt to outmanoeuvre the player closest to him. Hinostroza simply makes a good stick-check to jar the puck free. Ultimately, the turnover is not just because of that defensive action sine Petry actually fights through his check, but because Cody Eakin, rather than Jake Evans, is in position to support his teammate and retrieve the loose puck.
In “doing the right things” and “going to the net,” Artturi Lehkonen, Brendan Gallagher, and Evans have essentially abdicated all offensive impetus to Petry and Chiarot. If the shot does not come, the three forwards on this play are contributing absolutely nothing. Even if the shot does come, it still has to traverse a forest of blue-shirted bodies to reach Tokarski, and then the Buffalo netminder has to cough up a rebound.
In short, three things have to happen — three things completely out of their control — before any of them can exert any impact on the play. Ultimately, Petry is the one who makes the visible mistake, but he was playing two versus five.
As long as the Canadiens keep expecting offence to fall from the sky like manna, all of their “efforts” will be for naught.