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Changing the Canadiens’ approach to rush offence

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With their opponent playing a disciplined game, Montreal needs to do more than wait to capitalize on errors.

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game Two Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens scored only three goals in the first two games of their series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Looking at their expected goals over these two games (1.04 in Game 1 and 0.98 in Game 2), they weren’t unlucky. The team failed to get quality scoring chances and the offence dried up.

Montreal usually generates their high-danger scoring chances off the rush. Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy to do in the playoffs. Opponents commit fewer mistakes. The Leafs don’t overextend in the offensive zone as much as in the regular season and they reload faster above the puck when they lose possession. As a result, they mostly stopped Montreal from attacking with speed and numbers.

According to the tracking project of Mikael Nahabedian, Montreal only managed to carry or pass the puck over the offensive blue line 40% of the time over the course of Game 2; a drop of 8% compared to their rate in the regular season. From watching the game, we know that a lot of the rushes that traversed the offensive blue line died soon after along the boards.

A rush is only truly effective if it leads to control of the puck in the offensive end or a dangerous shot. Sometimes, when the opposition has a clear, overwhelming defensive advantage like in the clip below, it is perfectly fine to dump the puck in the zone. Forcing a pass or a dangle in the neutral zone can often lead to a dangerous scoring chance for the other team.

But Montreal left a lot of rush opportunities on the table in Game 2. Their best chances usually came off either defensive stops or after one-on-one battles on the walls. They won the puck and caught the Leafs still in an attacking formation, sprinted past them in the neutral zone, and gained the offensive end, which led to their scoring occasions.

The Canadiens have that counter-attack part of the game down. Where they need to improve is in how they approach the rush when their opposition has time to install their forecheck and neutral-zone defences.

To break set formations, the Canadiens need to use their outlets better. Sometimes the breakout fails simply because players don’t locate teammates before they receive the puck. They take too long to move it or panic and go glass-and-out. It’s true that the Leafs’ structured forecheck doesn’t give the Habs much time to make plays in this series, but at this point in the season, players should know each other’s breakout routes. They should be able to find an outlet with a quick shoulder-check and a two-touch pass.

In the first clip below, Tomas Tatar circles in the defensive end and looks behind him to see Phillip Danault. When the puck comes to Tatar, he deflects it rapidly toward his centre. The pass beats two Leafs forecheckers and Danault carries the puck in the offensive zone. The following clips are not as pretty, however. Players miss direct and indirect passing lanes (bump plays using the wall), pick the wrong option, or hit it a second too late.

Above all, the biggest problem in Montreal’s transition game is one of mentality. The Canadiens are risk-averse in transition compared to other teams. You can see plenty of occasions in the video below where players had options and/or ice available to try to beat the opposition, but simply chose to dump the puck in or out.

This approach is understandable when looking at Montreal’s roster. It lacks dynamic puck-movers on the back end and forwards capable of manipulating defenders one-on-one with changes of speed, fakes, and rapid give-and-gos. They capitalize on mistakes instead of generating them by testing the opposition; a critique that also applies to the team’s point-shot heavy offensive system.

It isn’t too late for the team to change some of their tactics, however. Montreal could find a few more crucial goals before the end of the series if they adopted at least some of the rush mechanics that lead to success for their current opponent.

I have identified a few below. You can also read more about those strategies in Jack Han’s latest newsletter post. The most successful rushes are the ones that operate in layers. One example of this is a player pushing back the line of defence, allowing another attacker to come in behind, receive a drop-pass, and exploit the gap created by the first player. The trailing attacker can pick up speed, take on defenders one-on-one, or pass around them easier.

Montreal seldom uses that concept in their rush offence. They barely move the puck back, only forward. I counted numerous times in Game 2 where an attacker simply looked off trailing players with a speed advantage in favour of dumping the puck in or taking on defenders themselves.

Montreal’s forwards should also be more aware of the space available to them. Like every other team in the NHL, the Habs send forwards all the way up to the offensive blue line on regroups to force the opposing defence to check them, which in turn creates more room in the neutral zone. After completing their ‘‘anchoring’’ movement, instead of staying near their check, the forwards can sometimes take a few steps back into space to become better pass options. This way, they can free their stick to make a bump-pass to another attacker accelerating between blue lines.

The modern rushing game is all about stretching and expanding, not to create immobile pass options up ice but usable space below.

Montreal should also look to change the point of attack as they come up ice as a group instead of rushing straight ahead along the boards. Criss-crossing movements and passes from one corridor to the next unbalances the opposition’s defence. They enlarge gaps and create more openings.

You don’t need uber-skilled forwards to implement some of the concepts above. It helps to have an Auston Matthews, a Mitch Marner, or a William Nylander to execute them, but rush offence is more of a team affair or philosophy.

It starts with more awareness and support in the defensive end, which leads to faster execution on breakouts, cleaner exits, and more space in the neutral zone. That space can then be used to exchange the puck, pick up speed, change the point of attack, beat the line of defence, and get in the offensive zone with speed. You can then trade that speed for a way into the slot.

Of course, it isn’t as easy as I make it sound here, especially in the playoffs. Still, I find that in that post-season context we’re too eager to celebrate safer, grittier physical plays, like a dump-in and a forecheck, and forget the importance of “mental grit.”

Players who accurately judge the risk of a situation, who make quick, accurate, and skilful decisions under pressure instead of hitting the first option they see, players who improve the conditions of the puck, who create space for teammates on the receiving end of passes instead of deflecting pressure to them, and who generate offensive advantages instead of battles deserve just as much praise as those who engage and win those battles consistently.

Without overhauling their system, the Canadiens would benefit from a slight adjustment in offensive values, from taking control of scoring chances with more creative rush and offensive-zone concepts instead of only waiting to capitalize on opposition mistakes.