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Dissecting the Canadiens’ late-game strategies and breakdowns

From the tying goal to the circling overtime shifts to the final shootout attempt, an explanation of why things went as they did.

Montreal Canadiens v Vancouver Canucks Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

Phillip Danault and Ben Chiarot needed to do a better job of sorting out their assignments in the last neutral-zone forecheck that led to Adam Gaudette’s tying goal. Either Chiarot had to read that Danault was pressuring the carrier and move wide to cover Gaudette, or Danault had to play the situation more passively from the start and stay high to deny the pass to eventual goal-scorer.

But alas, one breakdown from a lack of communication and/or vision and Montreal was back to dreaded overtime play.

Dominique Ducharme’ overtime strategies are quite interesting. He seems to want to start with players capable of winning draws, and sending two centres out for the opening faceoff made that plan rather obvious. I guess Danault was supposed to play this draw aggressively. He could, since Jesperi Kotkaniemi stood on his wing as backup in case Danault got chased off. Kotkaniemi has won the majority of his faceoffs in recent games.

The Habs lost possession, but as soon as they regained it, you saw Ducharme’s idea. He wants to tire the opposition’s best players by keeping possession away from them. When they go to change, the coach then puts his best elements against the other team’s secondary scorers. It didn’t exactly work out as planned, but with a bit more activity from the first trio to make the other team skate and force that change, it could have.

Some might find that the new coach is overthinking this phase of the game and that he should just play his own best players from the start, but there is a reason why he is trying to find a strategic advantage: Montreal isn’t built for overtime. Their record is a testament to that.

Three-on-three is all about dynamic, creative offence. That is not exactly the calling card of Montreal’s lineup. Their defencemen lack the mobility to join the attack and come back on to defend the opposing rush, and many of their forwards are also on the slower side compared to the NHL elite; players like Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki, and Tyler Toffoli. The gritty kind of game of many of the other players doesn’t translate as well on the open ice.

Ducharme is trying to work around the weaknesses of his lineup. It is a gimmicky phase of the game anyway. There is merit to trying a different tactic.

Tomas Tatar

Tomas Tatar failed his shootout attempt in a bit of an embarrassing way, but the miss shouldn’t erase his great performance last night. He is firing on all cylinders right now and played one of his better games this season in terms of energy and intensity. At this point, his healthy scratch is nothing but a distant memory.

Was the benching deserved? Did it help create this surge in his play? Or was it the coaching change? We won’t know for sure what led to him skipping a game. There was a small dip in his effort level, some light offensive cheating, but nothing egregious. Sometimes, you just end up being made the example for poor overall team play.

The good news is that Tatar has gone back to being the speed and the skill of the Danault line. The chemistry is back and the line was as dangerous as ever versus the Canucks. The three players finished with the highest expected-goals mark.

Here are a few selected clips of Tatar from the first two periods:

There isn’t much missing. I counted at least three clean puck steals from Tatar over the course of the game and those directly led to offence and good scoring chances. Those steals happened because Tatar reloaded above the puck consistently, skated hard on the backcheck to get ahead of his man, covered for his defencemen in timely ways, and helped defenders pressure in the defensive zone when he saw an opening.

In transition, his speed and ability to find outlets under pressure helped the first line break through the neutral-zone, and then his net-drives dragged defenders to the blue paint, creating room at the top of the zone for the offence. He also found pockets of space to receive drop-passes and drive the slot a couple of times.

Finally, there were the displays of skill, the way he dragged the puck around defenders to surprise the goalie with a release, or fired through the legs of another one later in the game.

Montreal will have to make hard decisions on who to sign in the off-season. Tatar will probably command a higher salary than the one he has now, but again this season, he is proving his value as a checking, speedy, and skilled forward.

That said, the between-the-legs shootout move is probably not something he should keep in his repertoire....