Montreal missed Joël Armia in Game 1.
Jake Evans brings a different set of skills to a line than his large Finnish counterpart. The young forward adds quickness, backchecking pressure, and a playmaking touch, but some of these abilities are redundant inside the team — or at least, they aren’t as unique as Armia’s. No one can protect the disc and keep defenders at bay low in the offensive zone as effectively as him. His presence adds a whole new dimension to the formation; it diversifies its attack.
The more diverse an offence is, the harder it is to shut down.
Armia also built chemistry with Eric Staal and Corey Perry that Evans just couldn’t replicate in Game 1. Of course, it takes time for players to gel and start reading off each other, but this is the Stanley Cup Final. The coaching staff doesn’t have time to wait for the results of experiments.
But above all of that, the reason why Montreal missed Armia is that the Finnish winger has been leading the team on the ice, setting up an example for how they have to play to earn success.
In pure Habs hockey, they waited for mistakes and capitalized.
In transition, there was barely any cross-ice passes and absolutely no drop-passes, only corridor rushes. Offensively, especially when the team got a 1-0 lead, players kept the puck low in the offensive end and cycled it. They didn’t even try their trademark low-to-high passes to defencemen at the point. Those felt off-limits. The risk of a mishandle at the top or a blocked point shot and an ensuing odd-man rush was not worth the extra shot.
Defensively, the team fully applied the Columbus Blue Jackets’ formula. They became comfortable being uncomfortable; they let the Leafs cycle the puck until they exposed it. Then, they double-pressured it, battled, and moved the play out.
Montreal got away from their recipe for success in Game 1. They played a style that featured more lateral passes through the neutral zone, more one-on-one attempts and plays to the slot after entering the offensive zone, and more low to high passes. They opened up the game, traded more rush chances with Tampa Bay in the first half, but didn’t manage the puck nearly as well as their opposition, leading to failed entries and turnovers a few feet inside the offensive blueline.
Here are the individual 5v5 transition stats for Habs' players from tonight's game vs Tampa.— Mikael Nahabedian (@hunterofstats) June 29, 2021
TB controlled the NZ with a well executed 1-1-3 to angle MTL's players. With the puck, TB leveraged middle entries to generate quality chances off the rush. pic.twitter.com/4eFDp5uFpc
There are no turnovers more costly than the ones off the rush. Those are not like the offensive zone ones where at least two players are above the puck, in a position to think about defence, to immediately come back, and angle the play to the outside.
Off the rush, the entire formation is moving up-ice. It becomes hard for players to turn their feet, and adjust to a quick strike the other way. Defensive gaps end up too tight or too loose. Roles and coverage get confused and breakdowns happen.
Armia is a key piece of the three-man forechecking and cycling offensive game of Montreal that has earned them so many playoff wins. This tactic is quite inefficient when it comes to generating scoring chances overall, as the team mostly plays inside the defensive structure of the other team, but the main positive is that it leads to much better puck management.
It is almost impossible for the opposition to catch Montreal off guard when the puck ends up low in the offensive zone. The Habs still have at least three defenders above the puck when that happens and plenty of ice to backcheck and adjust.
The strategy is a way for the team to level the playing field against a team like the Lightning. It won’t help Montreal improve their controlled offensive zone entries — although tightening up the play and creating more turnovers of their own might — but not giving such an offensive powerhouse as many mistakes to capitalize on is step one to victory.
Step two is the Canadiens capitalizing on their own chances.
Tampa Bay is a better defensive team than all of the previous formations they encountered, but Montreal can still generate their own luck, their own magic by coming at the Lightning in waves, shift after shift, grabbing the momentum, tiring them out, and leading them into lapses in coverage and breakdowns. Just like they did against Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vegas.