When there is a change of head coach, it usually creates an influx of energy. Players see a new beginning, a chance to prove themselves, earn more ice time, and show management that they got the message and are ready to perform. You see teams come out flying with a renewed intensity and take over the game to win it for the new guy at the helm.
We saw a bit of that against the Winnipeg Jets, but mostly the Montreal Canadiens fell flat. Tuesday’s night featured the old Habs; the undisciplined, defensively spotty, and disjointed group of the past few weeks. Veterans, with a few exceptions, didn’t perform up to their standards, especially Carey Price. Those standards are getting harder and harder to remember, slowly erased by poor performances.
It will take time to get this team back on the right track. Some coaches don’t want to disturb the previous system when they get launched in like this, in the middle of a stretch of games. They might implement a couple of things, or, more accurately, reinforce them, but overall they just let the team play their old ways, prioritizing their comfort, at least for a time.
Dominique Ducharme actually went with a little more aggressive approach. At least, it looked like that. Many of the Habs’ five-on-five systems seemed tweaked against the Jets. Some became more aggressive, more creative — more exciting — and others more passive. The special teams are Montreal’s biggest problem right now, but those are difficult to fix overnight. There aren’t many different variants of ‘‘systems’’ for those phases of the game; fixing them is more about working on the details, like stick placement, movement patterns, and aggressiveness.
It isn’t the right time for a system analysis piece, one that points out the differences between Ducharme’s and Julien’s system. Montreal lost last night and they lost by going back to some of their bad habits. They probably erased a lot of the work of Ducharme, and overall one game is not enough information to truly see the changes. Hockey is incredibly fast-paced, so until you see the exact same game situation repeated, you don’t know if what you are watching is a new pattern or just a random occurrence.
There are still some things we should all look for Saturday night, as they seem part of Ducharme’s new philosophy for Montreal.
The first one is offensive-zone movement. At least in the first two periods, Habs defencemen made some real efforts to not just fire on net. You saw them move the puck across to their partner, chip it back down to forwards coming up the wall, and use a high F3 for passing plays.
The offensive execution was awkward at times, but at least the Habs attempted to create offence in a different way, to sustain the pressure by using space and exchanges between forwards and defencemen. This change of strategy — if it really is one — won’t happen overnight, but would benefit them in the long run.
Habs Ds aren't comfortable making plays at the top of the zone right now, but they're trying. Weber holds his shot and uses the high F3, Drouin, and then tries to jump down to create a new pass option. The execution is awkward. It will take time. pic.twitter.com/hw30XZlWP4— David St-Louis (@DavidSt_Louis) February 26, 2021
Another thing to look for is the offensive-zone forecheck. Montreal always used a 1-2-2, a classic in the NHL, but Julien’s 1-2-2 looked more aggressive than Ducharme’s. Julien’s forward would double pressure (acting almost like a 2-1-2) every time the opposing goalie would play the puck or where there was a chance to steal the disc outright from an opposing defenceman. Against Winnipeg, the Habs kept their defencemen and F3 higher on the forecheck and rarely sent two guys at once below the goal line unless they had not just a chance, but a great chance of winning possession. It might be just a response to the Jets’ breakout system, just a particularity of this game, or it could be a legitimate change.
In the neutral zone, however, the team turned up the aggressiveness, with defencemen striking early to deny access to the red line. It felt like Montreal closed down on all the rushes they could. That being said, forwards continued to not support defencemen adequately on the backcheck. They either overcommitted, skating past their check, or lagged behind, forcing blue-liners to give up access to the zone.
The Habs’ issues are numerous and, in some areas, large. To see the team come out flying, power through their issues, and get the win for their new coach would have been great, but if you take some distance from the result, there are still many positives to take away from this game, the main one being the inception of what could be a new offensive style.