The Montreal Canadiens have won three games in a row, two of them in overtime, breaking a streak of pretty significant ineptitude in the extra period this year. They started toying with a new system in a game against Vancouver, knowing that while they have a deep forward group, the Habs lack elite high-end talents like a Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, and the like. The system itself is quite simple: maintain control of the puck to keep the opposing team’s star players, who usually get the first call, out there skating and tire them out.
When they have to change or are at the end of their shift, the Habs counter-attack and catch them in a change or force them back on tired legs while a fresh Montreal line hops on to take advantage. It’s exactly what they pulled off against Ottawa, and very similar to what they did against Toronto on Monday.
The play to create Cole Caufield’s first NHL goal starts with a hard drive to the net by Jake Evans, one that forces the Senators to stay on their heels, and Evans collecting his shot attempt to keep the cycle going is crucial. He feeds it to Jeff Petry, who brings it back to the neutral zone, then picks up speed to directly attack Brady Tkachuk who has been on the ice for most of the OT because Ottawa can’t recover the puck and change. Tim Stützle gets caught puck-watching, as does Erik Brännström, as Cole Caufield flies by and puts home the game-winner.
It’s not boring to press your advantage. Montreal knows their strength lies within their ability to control the puck and cycle the offensive zone to open up lanes. Ottawa had burned the Canadiens all night with their speed game, slipping behind the defence, so Montreal’s solution to never letting them control the puck worked out.
Fast forward to Monday night, after the Canadiens have tied the game late in the third period, and have forced overtime to claim at least one point against the red-hot Maple Leafs. In overtime, the Canadiens choose to play the regroup game as they work through the neutral zone and peel back when they don’t see an open lane to the offensive zone. If the lane isn’t there or wasn’t developing, they bring it back to the neutral zone and try again. Only when it looks like there’s a chance to score do they attempt a high-risk play.
What ensues is a hectic period of play that always happens off a turnover at three-on-three — the type of game the Canadiens are working to avoid. The Habs try to settle things down and regain control, but that’s tough to do against a skilled team. In the end, the Canadiens are probably lucky to not allow a goal, but they give themselves the best opportunity to win on tactics rather than pure skill.
The game ends as Petry weaves into the offensive zone and Nick Suzuki changes for Cole Caufield. With Petry working towards the left boards, the suddenly impatient Leafs send John Tavares and William Nylander at Petry, leaving Caufield all alone in the slot to receive his pass, and finish things off.
Some people may be calling the Canadiens overtime plan “boringm” or maybe there should be a “shot clock” rule in the NHL. Eventually Toronto did get a chance — the best chance of the OT period before their generational talent misfired his shot, once the Canadiens had missed the first chance they tried to crease. Playing run and gun from the start was going to be a losing proposition, so the key is to prevent that for as long as possible while still in control of the outcome.
Montreal’s overtime plan has worked to perfection two games in a row, and following an 0-9 run in extra time to begin the year, they’re now 4-0 in their last four tries. That’s a credit to their coaching staff for implementing a plan that not only frustrates opposing teams (and their fans who expect their stars’ talents to be on full display), but uses that frustration to create the openings the team needs. Montreal has its plan, now it’s up to the opposing coaches to figure out a way to speed things back up to take advantage of their own strengths.