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The Canadiens’ defence needs to be better, but adjustments have already begun

The Canadiens switched up their offensvie-zone strategies in response to the Golden Knights’ defence.

Montreal Canadiens v Vegas Golden Knights - Game One Photo by David Becker/NHLI via Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens lost the first game of their series versus the Vegas Golden Knights in large part because they lacked their number-one defenceman, Jeff Petry. There were other smaller causes, of course, and his presence might not have changed the outcome of the game, but one thing is for sure: the ice wouldn’t have been as tilted in the Vegas Golden Knights’ favor.

Petry handles the puck in his own zone better than everyone else on Montreal’s blue line. His assertiveness translates to more possession time and more opposing plays broken up. In other words, it helps the Canadiens stay out of their own zone. And most of all, he can play long shifts without breaking down mentally, which isn’t the case for the committee of players replacing him.

Since we don’t know when Petry will feel effective enough to re-enter the lineup, Montreal has to make do with what they have. There are a few offensive elements that the team can work on to improve their chances of winning Game 2. The main one is speeding up their decisions on breakouts.

Maybe the pause slowed the team down. Maybe they accumulated a bit of rust and lost their playoff pace. Or maybe the Golden Knights are just that much faster than the Winnipeg Jets and they caught the Habs off-guard. No matter the reason, players can’t get caught by back-pressure in regroups and zone exits anymore. These are not acceptable mistakes in the playoffs.

It happened numerous times over the course of Game 1. I clipped a few in the video below.

Montreal’s back end also squandered a few clean breakouts due to slow reads. They missed passing lanes as they opened and made desperate, uncontrolled passes to hit them before they closed, giving the puck away to the Knights.

Montreal also has to not let up on the forecheck. Vegas’s defencemen aren’t immune to mistakes of their own on breakouts. The Danault line proved it at the start of the game when they pressured the opposition into a turnover. That giveaway led to some of Montreal’s best five-on-five scoring chances of the game.

The Habs miss their zone exit in the sequence, but as all five players had a tight gap with the Knights, they prevent them from making a play off the turnover. A Brendan Gallagher charge and a Ben Chiarot pinch were all it took for the puck to get right back to Montreal. Then, the team put the Knights under pressure again on the forecheck. They won battle after battle and got at least two high-danger attempts.

With a little more luck, they get the opening goal right there and the game turns out completely different. Like every team in the league, Montreal plays much better with a lead, but it feels even more important for them due to the current construction of their back end. Their three remaining top-four blue-liners can fend off the opposition’s formation and capitalize on mistakes better than they can breach it offensively.

Despite the limited offensive talent at their disposal, one clever adjustment by the Habs’ coaching staff to the defence was the way they aimed their point shots. Vegas tried to counter Montreal’s spray-and-pray offensive-zone strategy — their heavy reliance on shots from the blue line — by creating a wall of bodies. Their defensive forwards rushed the top of the zone in a blocking position while Vegas’s own defencemen would sometimes forfeit their battles with a Canadiens forward near the net and simply front them, adding an extra layer of shields.

These aggressive blocks force Montreal’s defencemen to act fast with their shots. If they fired without aiming, the puck could bounce on an opposing body and create quick breakouts for Vegas, and even possibly odd-man rushes, which were so effective for them in the second round.

So, a couple of times, Montreal aimed their point shots away from the net, toward the backboard. When fired hard enough, the puck can bypass the layer of bodies and spring back to the slot for the Habs forward left unchecked there.

This strategy might just net a few goals for the team before the end of the series.

Game 1 won’t define the whole semifinal. Dominique Ducharme’s team has proven that they can adjust to their opposition in their previous matchups. They already have in this one with this simple, but potentially effective strategy.