“Cole Caufield intercepted a dangerous, ill-advised, cross-ice Alex Galchenyuk feed in Montreal’s zone and moved in on a 2-on-0 with Suzuki...”
That’s how the Canadian Press national wire service framed the sequence of events that led to Nick Suzuki’s winner goal in Game 5, and if you asked the thousands of netizens that caused “Galchenyuk” to trend nationally on Twitter in the hours following the game, they would likely agree with that assessment.
But hockey is not tennis, and unforced errors are rarely truly unforced. Galchenyuk’s gaffe was not just a product of his own doing, but the Tricolore’s just reward for a renewed assertiveness in their game.
To see why Galchenyuk places his pass on Caufield’s blade, we have to start with the very start of the sequence. Morgan Rielly takes the puck behind his own net and strides unmolested into the neutral zone. Seeing three Montreal Canadiens lined up across the blue line, Rielly wrists the puck into the Habs’ zone for Alexander Kerfoot to chase. Kerfoot is first on the puck, beating Jeff Petry, but is forced to immediately release it because Suzuki approaches to close off his lane.
The rapidity of this release means the puck sails beyond William Nylander, who isn’t in position, all the way to the opposite corner. Zach Bogosian activates, as Toronto Maple Leafs defenders often do, to keep the play alive, while Galchenyuk makes a good read and cycles into Bogosian’s vacant position.
So far, the Leafs are in a decent position.
However, two key moves by the Canadiens force Bogosian into a bad situation. First, although his man, Nylander, has moved to the front of the net, Joel Edmundson hasn’t followed, staying in the corner instead. Second, Tyler Toffoli reads Bogosian’s pinch and attacks him aggressively.
Bogosian is now in trouble. He can’t simply chip the puck down low because that’s handing it to Edmundson, and he can’t pass to Nylander because Toffoli’s body makes establishing a proper passing position impossible. It’s hard to tell on the video what Bogosian actually tries to do as he surrenders the puck, whether he’s trying to carry the puck through Toffoli’s check or he’s purposefully tapped it backward. Either way, the puck makes its way to the safety valve, Galchenyuk.
As he takes the disc, Galchenyuk must be hoping that his position by the blue line will afford him some more time. After all, the Canadiens were lined up in a 1-3-1 during the buildup, and the player closest to his current position is now engaged with Bogosian. Alas, it’s not to be as Nick Suzuki has followed the Leafs winger to the puck. Not only that, the Canadiens sophomore has taken an angle that cuts off Galchenyuk’s accessibility to the slot.
Stuck on his backhand with Suzuki revving at his heels, Galchenyuk has the following options:
- Attempt to backhand it through Suzuki to Nylander at the front of the net — where the puck can easily bounce off a shin pad and spring a breakout
- Attempt to backhand back down low to Bogosian — where Toffoli is waiting to spring a breakout
- Abandon the play by carrying the puck back to the neutral zone.
- Throw a quick pass to the high defender to relieve the pressure.
- Hold the puck and engage Suzuki in a board battle — where Suzuki poking the puck off his stick could result in a sprung breakout.
Some have suggested that Galchenyuk could have passed to Kerfoot in the high slot. However, Galchenyuk, having not looked back at the play since the Bogosian-Toffoli engagement, is unaware of Kerfoot’s existence. Moreover, the left-shooting Kerfoot would have to pivot to shoot, giving Jeff Petry ample time to engage. Finally, he simply isn’t open at the actual time when Galchenyuk goes to engage the puck. Kerfoot only appears to be open as the pass is made because Caufield leaves the lane as Galchenyuk is spinning.
Technically, #3 is the safest play here, but it is incredibly rare for an NHLer to voluntarily leave the offensive zone in a five-on-five situation.
As we know, Galchenyuk opts for #4. He has decent rationale for this: the series (not to mention years as a Hab) has shown him that the Canadiens like to collapse down low and not pressure the high man in the offensive formation. As he headed to Bogosian’s position, Galchenyuk also visually confirmed Rielly’s availability.
What Galchenyuk doesn’t know is that Caufield, donning the One Ring, has slid down to block that lane. Moreover, seeing Suzuki’s angle of approach, Caufield prepared to jump that pass even before Galchenyuk touches the puck.
You know what happens next.
In chess, the objective is not necessarily to take your opponent’s pieces, but to force them to make the moves that you have left to them. Here, astute readers will note that Nylander has actually been open in a dangerous spot for the entire sequence, but the Habs’ commitment to taking away time and space has left the Leafs with no opportunity to give him the puck.
It’s this same commitment — a commitment absent for much of the first four games of this series — that created the no-win situation for Galchenyuk, resulting in the game-winning goal. It’s a commitment that the Canadiens will have to double down on in order to take the fight, and the series, back to Toronto.