For about as long as he’s been in charge, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s philosophy has been to take away the opposition’s best players. As his son and current linebackers coach Stephen says: “Be strong against a team’s strength. Be alert for anything that they have shown. If they do beat you, make them do it with something they haven’t shown before.”
Saturday night, the Montreal Canadiens not only failed to execute according to this principle, they went one step further. Thanks to a constant — and largely merited — parade to the penalty box, the Habs essentially rolled out the red carpet for Connor McDavid and company, inviting the Edmonton Oilers’ stars to take the game from their hands.
Isolating and mitigating star players is easier in football than hockey. That said, focusing on the stars and exploiting the (lack of) depth has been the primary strategy against the Oilers ever since McDavid and Leon Draisaitl came into the league. Doing this largely centres on three tenets: denying the puck, denying time, and denying space. Generally speaking, none of these three things can be done well while short-handed.
That is the infuriating thing about the Canadiens offering up 4:22 of power-play time — including a rarely seen three separate five-on-three situations — in the first half of the second period alone. It is hard enough to prevent the likes of McDavid and Draisaitl from creating their own time and space, so it is doubly or triply worse to actively provide them with everything they need to succeed. Compounding matters, the Canadiens’ incessant parade to the box overshadowed the fact that they had outplayed the Oilers at even strength throughout the first period, and would even continue to do so throughout the second despite the self-inflicted handicap.
We talk about how this season is about processes and education, and how wins might even be counterintuitive in the long-term. Yet even from that perspective, a loss like this is more harmful than Thursday night’s win in Calgary. It is one thing to be outplayed by a more talented roster. The players are able to learn how to deal with a situation that can arise in the future — to handle something outside of their control. It is entirely another to hand two points to the other team on a silver platter. The main lesson becomes “don’t be so stupid the next time,” and the players are focused on a situation that they ideally would never encounter: learning how to bail water out of a ship rather than reinforcing the hull.
Sure, there is a potential silver lining in the sense of belief that the players can take from coming back to level the game in relatively short order. However, the effort expended to dig themselves out of their hole probably contributed to the lapse of concentration that allowed the Oilers to seize a 4-3 advantage with a mere handful of seconds to go in the second frame. Furthermore, being on the back foot to start the third period allowed the home team to fix the even-strength deficiencies of the first 40 minutes. Although Montreal maintained their shot advantage, their opponent’s defensive posture mostly took the sting out of their attack. The third period wound up as the only one in which the Oilers controlled a majority of scoring chances.
Ideally, Saturday night could have offered tangible proof that a young Canadiens team was more than able to hold its own against an Oilers team perennially trying to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup. Instead, the Habs are left to rue their own mistakes and ponder what could have been. A noble pursuit for short-term inspiration, but ultimately a squandered opportunity for something more.