The Montreal Canadiens completed a thoroughly dominant sweep of the Winnipeg Jets to win the North Division playoff bracket. It was quite eye catching how territorially dominant the Canadiens were after playing the role of well drilled counter punchers against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round. The Canadiens were much more effective at breaking the puck out of their own zone and setting up shop in the Winnipeg zone in the second round in comparison to the first. Furthermore, once they were in the Winnipeg defensive zone, the Canadiens were much better at maintaining pressure on the Jets by cycling the puck. Without the superb goaltending of Connor Hellebuyck, the Jets may have suffered blowout losses beyond just game three. However, despite all of his virtues within the crease, Hellebuyck’s clear weakness beyond the blue paint, especially in comparison to the Canadiens’ Carey Price, contributed to the territorial imbalance of this series.
The value goaltenders can provide with their ability to play the puck is often thought of as the risk outweighing the reward. A goalies puck playing gaffes often result in painful giveaways that lead directly to goals, so often if a goalie can simply stop the puck behind their net that is more than enough. What we saw in the series between the Jets and Canadiens was perhaps how a great puck-handling goaltender can change the direction of travel in a game or series. That is not to say that a goaltenders puck handling should be valued above their puck stopping ability, but in this series there was a definite benefit experienced by the Canadiens experienced Price’s puck-handling, as Connor Hellebuyck matched his puck stopping while facing a higher volume of chances. What we often saw in the series between the Canadiens and Jets was both teams dumping the puck into the offensive zone in order to chase it down on the forecheck. However, Price was more aggressive in going behind his net in order to stop the puck and find a Canadiens player to pass it to. What made me think that this often overlooked facet of a goaltenders game may have been key to how this series played out was when relating it to how and why goalkeepers in soccer have become a more consistent value add in a sport where their shot stopping ability suffers from small samples and higher variance from game to game.
One of the seismic changes that soccer underwent was the introduction in 1992 of the Back Pass Rule that meant goalkeepers could no longer pick up the ball when a teammate passed it to them in there 18-yard box. Initially this led to many goalkeepers ending up on 1990s blooper reels, just like the plays we often remember from ice hockey goalies. However, over time goalkeepers became better and more comfortable on the ball and eventually coaches at the forefront of the game, such as Pep Guardiola, began to see the value in using the goalkeeper as they tried to transition out of defence. The essential reason for this was that it was a fairly easy way to outnumber the opposition as they tried to stop you. For example, if a team is attempting to move the ball out of their defensive half using their central defenders, the opposition could simply match them by pressuring them with two attackers, perhaps two strikers in a traditional 4-4-2. However, if you push the central defenders out wide and allow the goalkeeper to take up a position in between them you end up with a 3 v. 2 situation where you can more easily pass around the first line of the opposition. This has arguably become more important as teams around the world have added systems without the ball that can much more sophisticatedly apply pressure to opposition defenders akin to a forecheck in ice hockey. What I think we saw in the Canadiens and Jets series was the effects of Price’s ability to create a numerical advantage for his team in a way Hellebuyck was unable to match.
I think there are two principal benefits to this, which show up in each team’s defensive zone. First, Price was able pass the puck to an open Canadiens defender after a Winnipeg forechecker applied pressure to him, creating a similar numerical advantage to what has bene seen in soccer. The Canadiens were able to outnumber the Jets forecheck, especially when they applied pressure to Price, and creating quick numerical advantages up the boards as they moved the puck out of their zone, allowing them to quickly move towards their attack. Essentially the Canadiens were often able to play 6 v. 5 in their own defensive zone on the breakout. Second, his active puck handling disrupted Winnipeg’s forecheck in a way Hellebuyck was unable to do to the Canadiens. When Hellebuyck did not even come out of his net to stop the puck behind his net, which was often, this meant the Canadiens dump in was more difficult for his defenders to retrieve and it allowed the Canadiens to keep even numerical battles against the Winnipeg breakout as they were playing 5 v. 5 in the Winnipeg zone. These matchups meant Winnipeg’s breakout was easier to pressure and force into chipping the puck out of their own zone, thus allowing the Canadiens to retrieve the puck and attack again, or have an offensive zone face off in the Winnipeg zone. Conversely, the Canadiens were able to break the puck out of their own zone more efficiently, forecheck more effectively, and thus were able to gain a territorial advantage that translated into shots, scoring chances and a sweep. They were able to play more often in Winnipeg’s defensive zone as opposed to their own, I think, in part because of their goaltender’s superior puck handling when compared to his counterpart in the Winnipeg crease.