We shouldn’t pretend that the Montreal Canadiens’ Game 5 was a great systematic performance. The team broke down multiple times defensively only to be saved by last-second, desperate interceptions, many coming off the stick of Nick Suzuki and an elite performance from the team’s unquestionable MVP, Carey Price.
That being said, the Canadiens’ improved forecheck made a big difference in this game. It created at least two of the three goals. Especially in the first period, and specifically the first 10 minutes, the team pressed the Toronto Male Leafs both with urgency and in a structured manner. They left the opposition with no good option.
This is the key to victory for Montreal. They can’t match their opponent skill for skill. They can’t match them in their offensive zone flow, and they seemingly can’t match their transition efficiency. But at times, they can force their opponents into mistakes.
Ideally, the puck should enter the offensive zone in a controlled way. An attacker should be able to carry it across the blue line and then change speed to make a play inside, but that has seldom happened for Montreal. Even if their transition data was better in Game 5 — Erik Gustafsson, especially, made a surprisingly positive impact on breakouts — most of their best offensive-zone sequences came off targeted dump-ins.
Here are the individual 5v5 transition stats for Habs' players from tonight's game vs Toronto.— Mikael Nahabedian (@hunterofstats) May 28, 2021
The Habs live to fight another day! A pretty solid game in which the OZ forecheck made a big difference in periods 1 and 2. MTL also did a pretty good job denying TOR's zone entries. pic.twitter.com/QIzCaV5Hdh
The next best thing when a controlled zone entry proves impossible, when a Habs attacker lacks speed or support, is to place the puck in an area where you know you can get it back. Sometimes, the defensive scamble created by a timely steal in the middle of the offensive end creates an even better scoring chance than a controlled zone entry.
We saw that on the first goal.
I am not sure how much Joel Armia thought about his puck placement and route on his dump-in on the first goal, but his choices of play were pretty clever in hindsight. As he approached the Leafs’ end, he skated in through right defenceman Zach Bogosian’s corridor, challenging the defender, and then lobbed the puck past him. Armia’s rush pattern forced Rasmus Sandin to take care of the retrieval. Sandin turned and skated toward the puck and saw Armia in close pursuit.
The winger skated toward the net to prevent Sandin from making a protective turn behind it. That course forced the young defenceman to take the puck on his backhand and curl up the boards.
In general, players try to avoid making plays on their backhand face. When handling that way, their shoulder and head usually drop, limiting manoeuvrability and vision.
Armia’s forechecking angle put Sandin into a difficult situation and he should have gotten rid of the puck. This was a moment to forfeit a play and go glass-and-out, but maybe due to inexperience or the pressure of the playoffs, he kept possession a second too long. Corey Perry, sensing vulnerability, stepped up for a hit. The puck squirted loose and Armia scored.
Look how tight Montreal’s 1-2-2 forechecking formation is in the picture above. Toronto likes to break out as a group more often than not, but they have no time and no space to do so here. Every Habs player is in the right place at the right time.
So maybe the Habs didn’t play a great system game for 60 minutes (no team is capable of that), but they had some great sequences at least, the kind you can build on for Game 6.
The lesson Montreal should take from Game 5 is that to score against the Leafs, it is not about creating an open, chaotic game all over the ice. The Leafs would come out ahead in such a contest. Instead it’s about generating that chaos in Toronto’s end of the ice. When all controlled plays fail, there remains a weapon: the targetted dump-in. If planned right and executed perfectly, with the participation of all three forwards on the ice, that chip can explode the opposition’s defensive structure and reveal openings.