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The Canadiens’ defensive system isn’t as difficult as the players are making it look

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The plan is simple enough. The execution made the Canucks look like a stronger team than they actually are.

Vancouver Canucks v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens should have won the game last night. It was a frustrating affair considering the high amount of chances the team had to put the puck in the back of the net. The disc didn’t obey them; it bounced off posts or slid past breaking sticks in front of empty cages. Most of those high-danger looks came off the stick of Tyler Toffoli, but him being the offensive catalyst isn’t a bad thing; it’s what he was brought over to be.

The heat map from Natural Stat Trick for the game reflects the quality of Montreal’s offence against the Vancouver Canucks. You saw a few of the traditional point shots, but also a lot of slot incursions, especially in the third period where the Habs took advantage of Vancouver’s porous defensive structure.

Natural Stat Trick

But there’s another side to that heatmap. At key moments, the Canadiens gave the Canucks free access to the slot in front of Jake Allen, and it cost them the game more than another subpar overtime performance.

The game should never have gone to overtime. Vancouver isn’t Toronto. They didn’t put the Habs’ structure under duress with repeated high-skill passes, one-on-one moves, and a constant wide cycle that forces switches. They couldn’t even count on their offensive star, Elias Petersson. Montreal simply let Vancouver walk in. They opened up the door to their house and served them scoring chances on a silver platter.

Forwards and defencemen share an equal part of the blame in some of those high-danger looks. The wingers and centremen either failed to sort out their check or arrived late on them, which placed defencemen at a disadvantage in an odd-man-attack situation. It forced an aggressive correction from them, which turned into an overcorrection that opened up a hole in the slot.

The changes in Montreal’s defensive system also play a small role in one of the mistakes in the video below. Now that defencemen follow their check higher in the zone, like Edmundson in the first clip, they leave more space in the net-front area. If an opponent escapes the vision of his defender, he has a bit of an easier time finding room to set up as a shooter.

Ducharme’s system requires that players sort out their assignments early even more than before. It isn’t a big ask. In fact, finding your man in the first few seconds of a defensive-zone sequence should be easy. Breakdowns usually happen when the other team moves around a lot and fatigue sets in. Still, those quick identifications proved challenging for the Habs.

The loss of Ben Chiarot definitely hurt Montreal’s ability to break up plays and transition the puck, but not this much. The elements in place are more than capable of handling a depleted Canucks team that lines up Jimmy Vesey, J.T. Miller, and Jayce Hawryluk as a second offensive unit.

At this stage of the season, when every point matters, Montreal shouldn’t be opening up the game to beat the Canucks in an offensive fest. The priority should be to shut down their opponent’s limited offence by reloading above the puck, closing lanes, and sticking with assignments. The offence will come in the process; Vancouver will give it to them in the form of repeated mistakes in their own coverage and puck management.

Let’s hope we see a much better team defence tonight.