Maybe playing the Vancouver Canucks so much so early put the Montreal Canadiens on the wrong track. They enjoyed the talent of their roster, filled the back of opposing nets, and started to feel that they could outmatch the teams in the North Division. They can on some nights, but their roster is built around an energetic, hard-working offence and hermetic defence.
The Canadiens don’t create time and space for offence like the Maple Leafs. They can’t create clever exchanges between defencemen and forwards and overwhelm with quick, skilful puck touches as well as their white-and-blue counterparts. The difference in skill between the two formations was quite evident in the multiple four-on-four sequences.
Montreal creates time and space through pressure. They create breakdowns and turnovers and attack holes while the other team scrambles back. They fire from the point, win races to loose pucks, and re-attack the slot. Rinse, repeat. It is a proven, working formula, but it requires high energy and engagement from the entire team. Josh Anderson can only do so much by himself.
Maybe having Paul Byron in the lineup would have made a slight difference in overall speed, but I don’t think so. Speed is a mentality. It’s picking up the puck fast and moving it fast. Both of those things were huge issues last night. Montreal got stuck in their zone. They stopped on the puck and took too long to settle it and find an option while the Leafs buzzed around them trying to steal it back. Forwards have to spread out and give options — good ones — and defencemen those have to manage the disc a lot better, sending it into space, creating short races up ice to it if they have to. Anything to avoid a Leafs steal in the middle of the slot.
The lack of puck-moving talent in the Habs’ top four might become a problem against Toronto this year. It was in stretches last night. Joel Edmundson and Shea Weber can avoid turnovers and make short passes, but if they don’t get timely support, they aren’t capable of beating opponents with fakes and accelerations to buy time for the team to get in position. Ben Chiarot can, but he does it by outskating players. His mobility isn’t as much of an asset against the quick and structured Leafs. They pressure him as he gets the puck, testing the limits of his handling ability. Jeff Petry is the best puck-moving asset in that top-four, but he had a tougher night in that aspect.
Here are the individual 5v5 transition stats for Habs' players from tonight's game vs Toronto.— Mikael Nahabedian (@hunterofstats) February 11, 2021
This was one of Drouin's best games on the transition this year with several successful pass entries. On the NZ FC, MTL's forwards did a good job forcing TOR to turn the puck over. pic.twitter.com/eoayHhQEUM
The Danault line is supposed to set the tone in important contests. The trio are the ones who support their defencemen well, find quick passing plays in transition, and then apply the methodic net-drive, point-shot, and forecheck offence of the Habs. Some of that clicked last night — Danault was one of the best transition players on the team according to Mikael Nahabedian’s stats — but in the offensive zone, his effectiveness dropped.
In disjointed performances like last night, the Habs need their more experienced unit to drive the play, to up the intensity, and trace a path to victory for the team.
The good news is that Montreal plays the Leafs again on Saturday. It’s an occasion to prove that they can come together and impose their brand of hockey on their opponents.