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The Calgary Flames feast on Montreal’s weak transition game

Lacking creativity at the best of time, the Canadiens look completely overwhelmed by a disciplined forechecking game.

Calgary Flames v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Not that we needed more proof, but the Calgary Flames are a bad stylistic matchup for the Montreal Canadiens.

Montreal capitalizes on mistakes and generates from counter-attacks. It works well against teams who get caught making higher-risk seam plays, but not versus hyper-conservative formations. Against the Flames, the offence dries up. There aren’t as many breakdowns to turn into scoring chances.

The Flames limit east-west passing plays in the neutral zone. They dump the puck in, forecheck as a five-man unit, fire pucks from the point, and load up the front of the net. When the puck slips from their hands, their forwards reload hard and fast above the puck, removing all breakout and transition space.

It is a simple formula that puts stress on the Habs. It exposes the main weakness of the lineup: the inability of the players to create offensive advantages in even-numbered situations.

In terms of puck-handling and skating skills, the Habs’s back end is in the bottom half of the league. The team doesn’t put much value on shaking the forecheck with skate and shoulder fakes, three-step explosions, or high-level deception. Their defencemen can break the cycle and win the puck, but they then require close to perfect teammate support to find controlled breakouts under pressure. When the connection between forward and defenceman falters, even for a half-second, the disc goes right back to the other team.

It’s the same story for the transition. Montreal used to be known as a “speedy’’ team, one that could occasionally break through the neutral zone before the other team could wall it off, but the team has lost a bit of that offensive identity. A good part of the forward group is made up of average skaters: Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Tyler Toffoli, Joël Armia, Eric Staal, and Corey Perry. To get through the opposition, those players rely on quick lateral passing plays, the kind of exchanges that the Flames’ disciplined neutral-zone defence erases again and again.

According to tracker extraordinaire Mikael Nahabedian, a must-follow on Twitter, Montreal only completed 42% of their breakouts and 41% of their break-ins last night. In other words, the team was barely able to move the puck across blue lines in controlled ways. The Flames installed their systems and controlled the flow of the play, only giving the Habs scoring chances in drops.

Montreal has the overall team composition to beat the Flames at their own game, to outwork them, outpressure them, and create breakdowns to score, but they released defensive pressure in key moments, missed assignments, and forgot players in the slot. Calgary finally took the lead, lock down their half of the ice, and squeezed the Habs’ offence even more.

This is where losing a player like Jonathan Drouin is a double-edged sword. He hasn’t been nearly as effective in recent weeks, and his streak of games without a goal continues to expand, but he generally remains an asset in transition. According to Nahabedian's stats, he leads the team in offensive-zone entries when you combine carry-ins, passing plays, and recovered dump-ins.

I have to say that I was intrigued by the lineup Ducharme iced, however, as it featured players who would, in theory, all be pulling in the same direction, system-wise. Line-matching and player matching is supposed to be one of the strengths of Ducharme (at least that is what his Junior career would tell you). His 11-forward, seven-defenceman setup gave him the flexibility to run ‘‘hot’’ scoring threats like Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson on multiple different lines and against weaker opposition. It also gave Erik Gustafsson, who hadn’t played in days, his first few minutes in a Canadiens uniform, and he even quarterbacked the power play for a bit. Understandably, it will take more than a stint for him to acquire the necessary comfort to lead a unit. This different setup is one we might see the head coach pull out again in the next few weeks as he juggles the ice time of the newcomers to keep them fresh and find the right fits.

If Drouin is healthy enough to play, even if he hasn’t delivered in the role of “Ducharme’s go-to guy,” he could re-enter the lineup to provide Montreal with a bit more speed and passing skills in transition. Or it could it be time for Cole Caufield.

I am of a cautious nature. If you read some of my previous work, in my opinion, Caufield should spend a bit more time in the AHL to make Montreal's systems second nature. If his mind is occupied by rotations and switches, creativity and instinct won’t take over. Plus, the Flames and their defence-first strategy would be a hard first matchup for the scorer. That being said, if the Habs are going to insert their top prospect, he could at least provide the team with a much-needed dose of pace, energy, and dynamism.