At no point in last night’s game did it feel like the Montreal Canadiens had full control over the Edmonton Oilers. Sure, the Habs managed to frustrate Connor McDavid, but they were just angering the beast. He had that look in his eyes. It was just a matter of time before he broke out of his cage, wanting retribution for all the points that escaped him, not just in this game, but over the course of the teams’ season series.
To their credit, the Canadiens did manage to limit big mistakes against the Oilers captain for the first two periods. Much of what he was creating came off unreal displays of high-level skill on the power play, plays that are accessible to him and him alone. The two-on-zero he missed was just an extreme career outlier, a goal he would create 99 times out of a 100. Montreal got lucky there, just like they got lucky scoring their lone goal.
With 10 minutes left, Montreal started committing cardinal sins against McDavid, the kind of errors that you simply can’t make against him: losing track of his position in the offensive zone, mismanaging the puck at offensive blue line, and letting him get on your six on a breakout sequence.
Let’s start with the first goal.
Darnell Nurse attacks Montreal’s zone along the wall and delays. Jesperi Kotkaniemi comes off the bench trailing McDavid and misjudges his assignment, stopping high in the zone instead of checking McDavid, who receives an open pass in the slot. A net-front battle ensues and now it’s Jeff Petry who fails to look for the elite scorer. As the puck gets rimmed behind the net, Petry turns to the far post instead of the near post — where McDavid has now moved to. He is allowed a free lane to the front of the net, which he attacks.
At this point, the play is already over. McDavid holds all the cards. He can pass to his teammate in the slot, turn and fire at the net or, the best option, feed his defenceman, Ethan Bear, coming down from the point. Like the great playmaker that he is, McDavid doesn’t fully reveal his play until the last second. He keeps the puck in front of him, like he is about to drive the net, and although we can’t see his eyes, he is probably looking off his intended target.
Jonathan Drouin falls for the deception. He leaves his post and double covers Josh Archibald, thinking McDavid is about to pass there. Having baited a pokecheck from Petry and manipulated the second layer of defence — Drouin — McDavid hits Bear in the perfect spot for a one-time goal.
The second marker against is a combination of poor puck-management and low effort. The first part is arguably more important, however, as it is very hard to win a damage-limitation situation against McDavid.
Tomas Tatar moves the puck out of the zone. It gets intercepted. No problem so far; most Habs players are above the puck still. They recover it and Tatar gets it at the offensive blue line.
There is no opportunity for a play here, however, as all three Montreal forwards are clumped up together, surrounded by the defence. Tatar tries one move too many instead of chipping the puck into space behind the line of defenders. He gets hammered off of it and McDavid jumps on the loose disc.
The importance of “taking the extra stride” on defence can’t be understated. Petry was a couple of steps from making a great stop here. Had he continued to skate, he could have pushed McDavid off the puck or at least blocked the hole between his partner and the forward. But instead, he cut the engine, went into a glide, and reached with his stick, an ineffective strategy against one of the top handlers in the world. McDavid cut inside, in between the two defenders — Joel Edmundson could also have played this one-on-one better — and faked Jake Allen while falling to his knees.
Look at the position of number 97’s blade in the video above. It goes from closed (telling the goalie he might go to a backhand or one hand) to open, roofing the puck above Allen’s shoulder, and the goaltender was late in his push and coverage due to McDavid’s misdirection.
Below is the third goal, if you can still stomach it.
In this one, Tomas Tatar and the two defencemen are all cheating for offence. Tatar moved a couple of steps below McDavid to help regain possession and the defencemen seal the walls to retrieve a potential rim. Considering there are two-and-a-half minutes left to the third period and the Habs are down a goal, the aggressive positioning from Montreal is probably fine.
But McDavid doesn’t leave any advantage on the table. He shoves Tatar closer to the wall battle, even lower in the offensive zone, which further compromises the winger’s defensive position. As a result, when the puck springs loose, the Oilers captain has a few extra steps on Tatar in the race (not that he needs them). He picks up the puck and feeds Jesse Puljujarvi for a breakaway. Tatar, recovering but too low, and the defencemen, retreating but too wide, can’t cut the passing lane in time.
Montreal knows this already, but it bears repeating: any kind of advantage you give to McDavid is too much. He turns a slight crack in a defensive structure into a gaping hole, and a tiny edge into a highlight-reel play. The only way to contain him is to prevent him from touching the puck so much. That means better management of possession and safer decisions and also constant tracking of his position when he steps on the ice — or more shoulder-checks and effort to close down his space.
An encounter with McDavid is more than taxing mentally and physically, especially in an already condensed schedule, but Montreal has shut him down before. And if they are to get out of their recent slump, they will have to do it again tomorrow.
Here is an interesting video by Brett Lee (featuring Jack Han) on how to contain Connor McDavid, if you want to expand on the subject.