Dave Cameron is not a happy camper.
Even ignoring all the extra-curricular activities between P.K. Subban and Mark Stone, the Senators' bench boss must be highly displeased about how his team handled their assignments on Wednesday night. They didn't have the best Habs lineup to contend with, but key breakdowns were the difference-makers on a night when Ottawa generated plenty of offense off the rush and on the powerplay.
Focus: Defensive assignments in the Ottawa zone
On the ice, we have the Prust-Mitchell-Flynn line going up against the Ottawa fourth line of Hoffman-Legwand-Chiasson and the second pairing of Wiercioch-Ceci. Now, from an analytics point of view, this is a highly favorable matchup for Ottawa. Hoffman has been one of the NHL's most efficient scorers, Chiasson has been known to push play against Montreal, and Wiercioch-Ceci is a solid second unit with tons of offensive abilities.
However, the Montreal forwards are able to get the puck deep, and force the younger, greener Ottawa players to do a little defending.
Mitchell ties up Ceci and allows Flynn to skate the puck around the sideboards. Wiercioch is in hot pursuit and has followed Flynn from one side of the ice to the other.
Depending on the type of defensive zone coverage a coach likes to employ, the defenseman in this situation should be "releasing" the opposing forward as they get to the hashmarks and letting his winger attack the puck carrier. In this case, that would be Hoffman (OTT68) taking over the Flynn assignment, allowing Wiercioch to recover to the front of the net.
Hoffman is a bit passive here (if he can get stick on puck, that's a breakaway for Ottawa), while Wiercioch is way too high in the zone. But not a huge problem so far. Flynn is out of space and can only whip a turnaround shot in the general direction of the net.
As expected, Flynn generates a shot attempt, which Andrew Hammond easily turns away. Cody Ceci has eyes on Mitchell, who takes a poke at the rebound, and David Legwand has taken Wiercioch's spot as the net-front defender.
One minor issue here is Hammond's footwork. He has elected to stay upright to stop Mitchell, but is already drifting a bit too far out of his crease. Mitchell is no Patrick Kane and the puck is bouncing wildly, so the fact that Hammond isn't tight to his post won't necessarily kill him here, but his positioning will ultimately hurt his cause two screencaps from now.
Once again, the Senators are a tiny bit slow at recognizing when to switch their assignments. There is no way Ceci is quick enough to beat Mitchell around the net, and he'll have to shove aside two teammates (Hammond and Legwand) if he wants to take the short way to the far post.
The only solution here is for him to switch assignments with Legwand, take Prust and let the centerman defend the far post. But Legwand is not a defenseman (remember that Mr. Wiercioch got a bit too aggressive just a moment prior - he's in the high slot in this picture), and does not have that instinct.
Now would be a really good time for a 21 year-old (Ceci) to start yelling at a 34 year-old (Legwand).
To compound the problem, Hammond is now officially late on the play. The only way to redeem himself now is to put his left leg down against the ice and make a massive lateral move to beat Mitchell to the post.
While the puck carrier is swinging around to the front of the net, Hammond is just putting all his weight on his right foot in preparation to make that push. Too little, too late.
Mitchell's stick blade is at the finish line, while Hammond is just getting set to come out of the starting blocks. 1-1 Habs.
These types of plays really drive coaches crazy because, in their minds, they shouldn't be occurring - especially not in a playoff game.
The very best NHL players have an ability to slow the play down or kick it up a notch when it suits their purposes. This time of the year, that's the skill that separates (to quote Daryl Belfry).
But the implementation of a good coaching scheme and the consistent adherence to that scheme by players is enough to shut down an individual effort like that 99 times out of a hundred.
The coach will likely bring up compete level or a lack of effort in the post-game media scrum, but made no mistake about it, this was a failure at the tactical level.
What's worse for Cameron and his team, later in Game 1, with the score tied, it happened again.
The usual suspects: the Habs' fourth line working against Wiercioch-Ceci deep in the Ottawa zone. This time, however, we have the (usually highly effective) unit of Condra-Pageau-Lazar on for the Sens.
Ottawa is in good shape so far, excluding the fact that Wiercioch is once again way up in the zone, where a forward should be. But no matter, Pageau has identified this and has taken OTT46's place at net front.
Wiercioch retreats to his usual spot. At the same time, Flynn slides the puck to Markov at the left point. Ottawa still okay defensively at this point.
Markov one-times the pass and puts a shot on net. He'll never expect to score from there, but generating a shot attempt is a good way to create some chaos. Against a team like Ottawa, which tends to break down when things get too hectic in the D-zone, it's never a bad move.
Hammond directs the rebound toward the corner without too much effort. It's a garden variety 2-on-2 down low, nothing too dangerous happening just yet.
Flynn rushes back and beats Ceci to the puck. He chips it toward Prust, who has Wiercioch in tow. Notice that, once again, the Ottawa defensemen have vacated the front of their net. Pageau will be the one who will have to get back and protect "the House."
Montreal gets a fortunate bounce, and the puck squirts out onto Flynn's stick blade. This is where it starts to go wrong for Ottawa. Pageau is still not back in front of Hammond, and Flynn has a nice chunk of ice to work with.
The blue line represents the Royal Road, the most important landmark in this sequence for every player involved. Flynn is trying to cross it first and beat the goaltender to the far post. Pageau is trying to tie up Flynn's stick and/or knock the puck off of his blade before he gets there. And Hammond cannot move before the puck crosses the RR, lest Flynn jam it in short side or five-hole.
Flynn makes a quick dribble with his lower hand in order to give Hammond (who might be thinking "poke check") and Pageau the impression that he's going behind the net. But the play is clearly shaped toward the Habs forward cutting for a high-quality chance.
The first place in the race to playoff glory goes to Brian Flynn.
Pageau can't get there and Hammond isn't big or fast enough to close down the far side once he's sure Flynn won't go five-hole. Flynn pushes the puck through the two-foot opening between Hammond's skate and the far post. 4-3 Montreal.