It feels strange to say as this is the Stanley Cup Final, a best-of-seven series that has turned into a difficult win-four-out-of-five contest for the Montreal Canadiens, but the only thing the team can do for the remaining games is what they have been doing since the start of the reset three years ago.
Trust the process.
Game 2 was a good game from Montreal. They lost, unfortunately, but this is hockey. Sometimes you play good enough to win and the chips don’t fall in your favour. One of your defencemen miscalculates by a factor of centimeters and misses his poke-check in the neutral zone that leads to a goal scored by a sprawling opponent with less than a second left on the clock.
And then another one of your defencemen turns his head slightly too early. He doesn’t register his partner slowing down in the corner instead of skating for a direct reverse pass, allowing another opponent to catch the puck with just the right angle and bank it off your goalie.
Meanwhile, of the 43 shots you fire at the opposing netminder, only one goes in.
If the game was replayed 10 times, if it was replayed 100 times, and if the Habs conserved their energy and continued to adhere to their system, they probably win most of those reruns.
This is what the team has to take away from last night. Management brought in veterans for moments like this. To remind the team that, in the end, what matters is that system — the process. If the Habs stay true to their identity, if they play to their strengths, the breaks will come.
This series is not over.
Montreal already improved their puck management overall from Game 1 to Game 2. They stopped turning the puck over at the offensive blueline and played low in the opposing end a lot more. Joel Armia’s return helped with that. He initiated many of the team’s offensive zone cycles, and on the penalty kill, his long reach and pinpoint reads allowed him to control Tampa’s attack.
Nick Suzuki also came in clutch, scoring Montreal’s goal, the one lucky bounce the team got, and sprinting back to disturb a clear center-ice breakaway. These are the kind of plays we will likely see again before the end of the series. He showed his propensity for big moments time and time again in Junior, already in these playoffs, and in last season’s bubble.
Of course, there is still room for improvement.
Tampa Bay’s high forward is still causing the team trouble. He creates breakdowns in Montreal’s coverage through passing exchange and sneaky backdoor attempts. He also disturbs breakouts.
Here are two examples of that high F3.
In the first one, Tyler Johnson climbs to the blueline, becoming the high forward. He provides his defencemen with a passing outlet (a release from pressure), before pinching on the Habs breakout.
Against a team that keeps their F3 lower, Montreal might have managed to exit the zone cleanly, but Johnson, sitting higher, had time to survey the breakout passing chain. He picked the right moment to cut it, pressuring Armia as he turned his back, which forced the winger to chip the puck in the neutral zone and slow down the rush.
In the second instance, a few seconds later, Montreal simply couldn’t solve Tampa’s infamous 1-1-3 forecheck, which again uses a high F3 that lines up with their defencemen.
The Habs try to force a play on one half of the ice and ended up getting collapsed on.
Like with many forechecks, the best way to beat Tampa Bay’s is to change the point of attack. Instead of rushing through the strong side and making plays only up ice, Montreal should look to move the puck back or cross-ice whenever possible.
In the first clip, Jeff Petry was available as a carry option. He could have picked up speed inside space and maneuvered around the Lightning’s backtracking players with the support of his two teammates rushing ahead.
In the second clip, Ben Chiarot could have hinged the puck back to Shea Weber after attracting Tampa Bay’s first forward on his side of the ice. Weber could have then skated or passed to the other, less crowded half of the ice. That play would have likely resulted in either a cleaner entry or a more strategically placed chip-in.
Montreal already got better at using their options off the rush in Game 2 compared to Game 1. Their improved controlled zone entries percentage on Mikael Nahabedian’s stats shows it. The team went from a lowly 35% (Game 1) to an impressive 53% last night. The controlled zone exits also improved by 4%.
Here are the individual 5v5 transition stats for Habs' players from tonight's game vs Tampa.— Mikael Nahabedian (@hunterofstats) July 1, 2021
Solid night for MTL on the transition but mistakes cost them the game. Gustafsson was very efficient on both exits and entries. Armia's return made a difference for the 4th line's OZ FC. pic.twitter.com/4IAZBIoxT5
The Canadiens showed that they can analyze and solve their previous opposition as their series advanced. Game 2 already showed us signs of adjustments. And there is no reason to believe they won’t continue taking steps forward in Game 3.
Like Corey Perry said, ‘‘We get one of those bounces next game, you never know what can happen.’’