The narrative around the Montreal Canadiens for the last year has been that they are a good team. A fine, cohesive unit that lacks game-breaking talent — at least in terms of scoring.
Well, throw that in the garbage. Not only do they have it now, but they will also have it for years to come.
All three of Montreal’s goals came from true separating skills at the NHL level, the kinds that your everyday NHLer couldn’t ever hope to possess: Josh Anderson’s blazing speed, Nick Suzuki’s deception, and Cole Caufield’s release.
Few in the NHL can ever hope to catch Anderson in full flight in a straight line. When he gets a sprint out of the zone off a turnover and a rapid breakout, most defencemen are toast. They won’t recover if they didn’t back up in time. We saw it on the first goal. A tic-tac-toe from Jeff Petry to Paul Byron to Jesperi Kotkaniemi and a precise stretch pass to Anderson and he sprung past the line of defence for a breakaway, one an alert Kotkaniemi who beat his coverage up-ice finished moments later.
But it was the second and the third goal that probably finished convincing anyone that hasn’t watched Montreal closely since the start of the playoffs that they are carried by talent as much as their defensive play.
Suzuki’s setup started with a clean breakout, thanks to Philip Danault who came in support of Jon Merrill on the wall. The centreman swung up, got the puck (watch how he controlled his speed to not overshoot the passing lane) and, as the committed player that he is, took a hit to reach Suzuki at the top of the zone, allowing #14 to skate up-ice inside space.
This is where you see Suzuki’s mind working through the situation. Scanning for an advantage, for how to best transform this even-numbered rush, one that is not dangerous in appearance, into a scoring chance.
From this situation, Suzuki shifts to the middle and passes early to Tyler Toffoli.
By doing that, Suzuki stacks the attack on one side of the ice and isolates one defender. The play doesn't unfold perfectly, but he still gets a return drop feed which buys him enough space to enter the zone, something he would not have been able to do cleanly had he settled for a 2-on-2 in the middle of the ice.
Suzuki then attacks down the wall. He beats a first defender with his accumulated speed — the defender had to pivot to pressure him — and attracts a second one on himself at the goal line. While he drives down, Suzuki turns his head to the middle of the ice to identify support. He sees Toffoli attacking the slot, but looking deeper, also catches Eric Staal coming off the bench — a better option.
He can’t hit him immediately, however; he needs to buy time. And so he continues his course to the goal line and cuts back at the precise moment where the defender on his back attempts to reach for the puck and the one in front of him tries to close on him. He evades both threats, gains a bit of space, and without ever turning his head toward Staal — that would reveal his position to the defence — he hits his teammate for the goal.
The puck traveled inside a tight seam. It bypassed a defensive stick and arrived slightly behind Staal’s left skate, in a good position to load a wrist shot and launch it past Marc-André Fleury.
This play encapsulated all of the different skills and processing abilities that make Suzuki who he is:
- High-level awareness (knowing when to shoulder-check inside a play)
- Vision through layers (not only seeing the first option but the best one)
- Understanding of rush patterns (how to create an entry versus a set defence)
- Understanding of how to create switches in coverage and how to abuse them
- Puck protection mechanics (feeling defenders on his back and when to cut back to escape them)
- Great balance between deception and awareness (veiling a teammate by not looking at him but also knowing his position to connect with the pass)
- Precise passing that enables teammates to quickly make the next play
There are probably other more elements that I’m missing, too.
In a few words, the setup was elite.
And talking about elite, we can’t end an article fanning over the technical and mental details of the Habs young players without a few words on Caufield’s shot — another piece of anthology.
The play started with another neutral-zone break created by the heroes of the preceding goal, Suzuki and Toffoli. Corey Perry took the puck up-ice and seeing himself cut off and forced to a backhand by Alex Pietrangelo, decided on a higher percentage play and dropped a pass to Caufield.
Like he always does, the diminutive scorer had found a pocket of space in the middle of the defence. It wasn’t enough to ensure the goal, however, as Fleury’s athleticism allowed him to recover against lateral passes and still cover most of the net.
But Caufield’s shot removed any chance of a highlight reel save.
This is the position in which the scorer both caught the puck and fired. No drawback to that release. Caufield preemptively shifted his weight stick-side, loading his stick. As the puck came he kicked his leg back, dropping his upper body even more over the stick, charging it for an explosive release that looked more like a one-timer than a snapshot.
Not only was shot instantaneous, but it also had a lot of control and precision. Ping. Post and in it went.
Montreal comes back home up three to two in the series. Nothing is certain still, but one thing we can safely bet on: This shot from Caufield, these passes from Suzuki — they won’t be the last of their kind.