Saturday’s game saw a much better performance from the Montreal Canadiens, albeit one that borrowed from Claude Julien’s style of hockey. The players spent the last 10 minutes of the game accumulating point shots and trying to brute-force pucks in. There was also the conservative start to three-on-three overtime.
Nick Suzuki said it best a week ago: The Habs can’t play games trying not to lose. It rarely works. The Winnipeg Jets also deserve credit, however, as their team defence made it hard for the Habs to find passing seams inside the slot.
One big positive last night was the play of Alexander Romanov. It feels like someone took him aside at practice or in the video room and showed him situations in which he could use his skating to his advantage, as the rookie defencemen was flying over the ice for good parts of the game.
Especially in the first period, we saw him navigate the top of the offensive zone, stopping, restarting, cutting away to find better shooting lanes. He gained the middle of the ice to launch his trusted slapshots in situations where he would previously get his head down, tighten up his grip, and blast. Those recalibrations or east-west movements helped create some better chances for Montreal. The defenceman also hit two posts himself.
There is more offensive potential in Romanov than he has shown. The coaching staff needs to continue to work with him to unlock it. Next on the list: passing plays. Romanov doesn’t have to fire every puck on net. A healthy mix of feeds and shots would increase his production.
He covered more of the offensive zone away from the puck, too. He skated at incoming attackers, before pivoting to close his gap early in the neutral zone, not letting the opposing rush get any space on his side of the ice. This guided opponents toward Brett Kulak’s lane. Romanov’s experienced partner then walled off the defensive zone.
The tracked stats from Mikael Nahabedian showed a high amount of entry denials for Kulak and by extension for the pairing as a whole. An entry denial is rarely the work of one player; the whole team contributes to it with coordinated lateral and back-pressure. Apart from a few odd-man rushes in the first period, the Habs defended the rush as a unit of five much better in this game.
Here are the individual 5v5 transition stats for Habs' players from tonight's game vs Winnipeg.— Mikael Nahabedian (@hunterofstats) February 28, 2021
Despite the OT loss, this was a good game for MTL. Probably Edmudson's best game so far in terms of transition stats. Armia had a solid game as well, especially on the forecheck. pic.twitter.com/tJC7xQY6Ss
Romanov also used his skating more in the defensive zone. He attempted to carry the puck out a couple of times and didn’t default to the first outlet he saw as he did in the past few weeks. The defenceman got his head up, retained his poise against incoming forecheckers, made subtle fakes, and then slid the puck to teammates skating in space.
Those efforts didn’t always lead to clean zone exits (sometimes, to no fault of his own), but results will follow if he makes a habit out of using his skating and looking past the first layer of the forecheck, past the first teammate standing on the wall, flatfooted.
Overall, this Winnipeg game was the best performance for the rookie defenceman since his first week of action. It would have only been even better if he secured the sight-line of his goalie on the Jets’ only goal. His pairing with Kulak outplayed the others, finishing with the best expected goals on the team by a large margin due to their controlled aggressiveness, chemistry, and offensive movements.