The Montreal Canadiens need to fix their coverage in defensive zone faceoffs. That’s obvious. The Vegas Golden Knights arguably got some lucky bounces off of those in the first two games. It’s probable that the puck doesn’t favour them as much in the next games in those situations.
Still, the Habs need to get on the Knights defencemen quicker off draws to prevent clean point shots and they have to absorb those shots as they are fired — not deflect them past their goalie. That, or clear his sightline so that he can do the work himself.
But, take away their set plays off draws and Vegas didn’t look nearly as threatening in Game 2. That is great news for the rest of the series.
Montreal proved that if they get a lead, they can hold the Knight's attack at bay, just like they held the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets. The Knights might be their strongest opponents yet, but they are just as susceptible to getting shut down by strong team defence — Montreal’s whole identity.
Vegas has come to respect that identity. Especially the Habs forecheck.
As user patience is a virtue pointed out in Game 1, the Knights have been using a lot of stretch passes to get of their zone, wanting to move the play up ice as fast as possible and give as few opportunities as possible to Montreal to create turnovers in the middle of the offensive zone.
When the puck slides below Vegas’s goal line, one of their forwards remains very high. He cuts laterally through the neutral zone and gives a long outlet to defencemen. If he receives the puck, he can dump it in Montreal’s zone or bump it back to other Knights forwards accelerating toward him.
Except, Montreal, having acquired a lead, countered that strategy by keeping one of their own forwards (F3) just as high. This complicates the stretch plays of Vegas. F3 narrows the passing windows up ice (there are simply more bodies in the way) and allows Habs defencemen to pinch on the long forward. As they have support, F3 can reload high and cover.
However, no system works without full engagement from all its players.
The defenceman making the hard, timely pinch in the video above is Erik Gustafsson. He has been surpassing many people’s expectations in terms of defensive awareness and effectiveness in these playoffs. Dominique Ducharme even felt secure enough to use him in the final minutes of Game 2.
The Danault line deserves much of the credit for shutting down the Knights, but Nick Suzuki’s trio, which features rookie Cole Caufield, has also more than delivered defensively. One of their shifts late in the third period was an interception clinic.
Suzuki pulled off a creative dangle against Shea Theodore in the video above, but the defensive plays that made it possible, and the ones that followed, were arguably just as impressive.
Players filled the right systemic roles, retreating against Vegas’s rush, but standing up to it at the blueline. Then, after Suzuki’s chance, Habs forwards immediately reloaded above the puck to avoid an odd-man rush against, cutting all passing lanes along the width of the ice. Vegas was forced to make passes through defenders, pulling off one with some luck and falling another.
As the Knights installed an offensive zone presence, Caufield and Tyler Toffoli pressured opposing defencemen hard and fast, leaving them no room to make plays. They kicked the puck out of the zone and Suzuki intercepted the last desperate attempt of Vegas to re-enter it.
Too bad that Joël Edmundson followed this great shift with a poor puck management decision, one that ultimately led to yet another faceoff goal. However, as he played one of his better games in a Habs jersey and Montreal won the game, it is a mistake we can easily let slide.
Jeff Petry’s return next to Edmundson played a large role in the team’s ability to get their lead and hold on to it. The stat tweeted by Andrew Berkshire speaks volume to the defenceman’s overall impact on Montreal’s play.
It obviously dropped while the Habs hunkered down to protect the lead, but at around the 50 minute mark Petry and Edmundson were holding ~90xGF% in this game. Monstrous performance.— Andrew Berkshire (@AndrewBerkshire) June 17, 2021
These numbers would be impressive in a regular-season game against one of the weaker teams in the NHL. But in the playoffs? Against Vegas? It was truly a ‘‘monstrous performance.’’
Let's see if the Knights find a way to defeat Montreal's red-eyed beast next game.