The Montreal Canadiens flew down to Florida for their first game in nearly two weeks against the Tampa Bay Lightning. As expected, the defending Stanley Cup champions came away with a victory, but not without the decimated Canadiens side pushing them to the absolute brink.
Part of that came from the offence attacking in ways it hadn’t all season, with all four goals being scored thanks in part to aggressive plays from the neutral zone and in.
The final three goals from the Habs in particular highlight the value in having a more aggressive and mobile group patrolling the blue line. So let’s take a look at what the Habs can learn from those scoring plays.
Rafaël Harvey-Pinard’s 1st NHL goal
The play unsurprisingly starts with Harvey-Pinard battling to keep the play alive while Cole Caufield sneaks in to poke the puck away from the Lightning defender along the boards and across the zone to a wide-open Sami Niku at the right point. Niku activates from the point into the faceoff circle before backhanding a pass to Corey Schueneman, who slid into the slot from his spot on the blue line.
Schueneman kicks the puck to his stick but can’t get a shot off so the puck moves to the corner, Niku, still following the play on a pinch, is able to fling it in front to Harvey-Pinard, who finishes the play he started.
We haven’t seen much of the defence wisely jumping into the play like Niku and Schueneman did, and it paid off in a big way. It’s a first goal for Harvey-Pinard and a first NHL point for Schueneman, but beyond that, it’s a way for Montreal to diversify its offensive-zone attacks. If the defenders can wisely pick their spots, they’ll force opposing defences to respect their mobility instead of just assuming the shots are going to come from far out.
Kale Clague’s first NHL goal
This is perhaps one of the best team plays that the Canadiens have created all season. Even if it appears simplistic in nature, that’s sometimes the best thing possible for a team. Ryan Poehling starts deep in the Montreal zone, and takes off with speed through the neutral zone and over the blue line while drawing the attention of three Tampa Bay players.
This in turn opens space for Caufield, who collects the pass from Poehling as the centre drives deeper into the zone, still keeping Victor Hedman focused on him. As Poehling drives the net, so does Harvey-Pinard, cutting down the goaltender’s vision in front. Instead of firing a low-percentage shot, Caufield dishes off to Kale Clague. The rest is elementary as Clague walks into the faceoff dot, pulls back and hammers a half-slapper off the post and in through the mess in front.
The patience shown on this play, and making the simple, smart plays paid off with a fantastic first NHL goal for Clague. Poehling didn’t force any passes as he got into the zone, Caufield passed on the shot unlikely to become a goal, and Clague worked himself into a higher-danger shooting lane. It’s simple on paper, but it’s a plan of attack that the Canadiens should continue to follow.
David Savard’s first Habs goal
This one isn’t nearly as in depth as the other two goals, but I would be remiss to not mention it at the end of the day. David Savard this season has had multiple games where he’s come flying in from the blue line, toe-dragging a defender and then forcing a pass to no one in particular. Against his old club, he opted to call his own number, and what a call it was.
Tampa Bay attempts to clear the zone, but instead of pushing the puck forward it comes out laterally, allowing Savard to jump the attempted pass and keep it in the zone. From there, he carries the puck toward the slot, leaving the intended pass recipient behind, and setting up a one-on-one with Victor Hedman.
Savard cuts to his left, leaving Hedman to try to cover him and Jesse Ylönen. Hedman attempts a weak sweeping poke-check that Savard dangles around. Ylönen gets out of Savard’s path to the net, and even as Hedman recovers he isn’t in place to defend a shot. Instead of forcing a pass like he typically does, Savard picks his head up and wires one far corner to put Montreal in the lead in the third period.
There isn’t as much to take from this goal as the others, as it’s truly a great individual effort from Savard that resulted in a goal. Every now and then it would behove the Habs to take matters into their own hands and make a risky offensive play.
At the end of the day, the Canadiens still lost in overtime, but for a second straight game there were a lot of positives to take from a loss. Losing isn’t fun, but if the team is going to lose, at least they could provide more efforts like this.