Another game, another goal for Cole Caufield. The Habs seem to have finally found someone who can put the finishing touch on overall good team performances. And that’s what it was from Montreal, despite the fact that the team trailed by one goal for most of the night.
The Canadiens arguably applied the same defensive formula the last time they met their rival, but the difference is that this time, thanks to surprising chemistry between Jeff Petry and Caufield, they got rewarded with the fruit of their labour: two extra points. That fruit must have tasted extra sweet as the Winnipeg Jets, the next team up in the standings, got handed their seventh straight loss by the Ottawa Senators.
It doesn’t mean that Montreal will necessarily continue its climb over the Jets. Winnipeg’s inexplicable losing streak can’t continue forever, and the Habs’ crammed schedule remains quite a bit tougher. Toronto remains a likely opponent of the bleu-blanc-rouge in the playoffs. In that context, last night’s performance comes as a reassurance that the Habs could handle the Leafs if they do meet in the post-season.
Montreal has the blueprint for what a post-season victory looks like. For stretches of the game, they controlled the flow of the play by applying one strategy above all: close forward support.
All coaches around the league at all levels of hockey demand of their forwards that they provide close support to their defencemen in transition defence, on the backcheck and forecheck. But against some formations, like the ones with the firepower of the Leafs, it becomes imperative, not just an ask but a must.
You can’t ever give room in the middle of the ice to the Leafs. To win against them, teams have to take ownership of that area of the ice. Forwards have to backtrack hard in between the dots to at least level with the opposition’s rush. A rapid middle backcheck limits their east-west exchanges and pushes opponents to the outside after they enter the defensive end; or even better, prevents them from entering it altogether.
Below is a sequence taken from the middle of the second period. It is not a perfect one — Montreal’s puck management is questionable at times — but the clip shows constant effort from forwards to pressure the opposition and provide support to their defencemen.
Those forwards pre-emptively move above their coverage assignment as the Leafs try to break out. They take hard, purposeful strides to backcheck after a mistake in the offensive zone, and pressure Toronto defencemen hard when they try to hold on to the puck and slow down the game. As a result, the Leafs find themselves without breakout options and pushed to the outside as they enter the Habs’ end. Montreal’s defencemen also have an easier time reading the opposition rush and stepping up to kill it.
Here are the individual 5v5 transition stats for Habs' players from tonight's game vs Toronto.— Mikael Nahabedian (@hunterofstats) May 4, 2021
Three wins in a row for MTL. The Habs did a good job gaining the middle of the ice on zone entries tonight which allowed them to generate more offense than usual off the rush. pic.twitter.com/tfIv2eu9RK
The first benefit of close forward support is that it allows the team to break the opposition’s plays early in transition. The second benefit is that those early breaks often turn into cleaner offensive transitions. Why? Because all five Habs players are still regrouped and close to an optimal breakout or rush position and also because the opposition doesn’t have time to form an effective forecheck or neutral-zone defence. So it is no surprise that Mikael Nahabedian tracked more controlled zone entries for Montreal in this game. The team’s transition defence set up its transition offence for a good part of the game.
There is still much work left for the team’s preparation for the playoffs. They have to continue to build on their recent good transition elements and really drill those into their play, making it a constant in their game. Five-on-five goals remain sparse right now. The best way to increase them is to continue earning more and better possessions through that tight, supportive rush defence.