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Coaching the Habs back from the brink

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Using transitional play tracking to identify how best to prepare for a must-win game

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

It’s win or go home time for the Montreal Canadiens.

After dominating the first period of Game 5, the Habs were once again caved in during the second period, then largely outplayed in overtime by the New York Rangers.

Most coaches will break down a result by focusing on key moments which defined the final scoreline, such as goals for and goals against, and assign credit or blame to individual players on the sequence. I’ve briefly done that below on the Rangers’ second goal, when Tomas Plekanec lost coverage on New York defenseman Brandy Skjei.

The coaches I’ve worked with immediately reach for the video laptop between periods and after games to review such plays and file away their thoughts for later. But hockey is a probabilistic game - what you see isn’t all there is - so I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way to work.

As someone who walks the line between qualitative analysis (video) and quantitative analysis (stats), I think it’s more responsible to start the coaching process by getting a big-picture view of how a game unfolded, not only examining what did happen, but getting a sense of what could have happened.

Advanced stats such as shot differentials in the MTL-NYR series give an overall idea of which team has been driving play. In terms of Corsi, the Rangers started out poorly, then closed the gap and have been controlling the majority of shot attempts in the past two games.

Looking at zone exit and entry data, we get a better appreciation of where the Rangers have been hurting the Habs.

All things considered, the 5vs5 battle in Game 6 will hinge on Montreal’s to win the neutral zone about 10 more times in 60 minutes. Whether it’s denying a few more Rangers zone exits, breaking out more cleanly a couple of times or creating a handful of additional controlled entries, the incremental advantage could be enough to shift the balance of power back to the Habs. Considering that there are over 500 transitional plays per 60 minutes of NHL hockey, the margin is razor-thin.

Every NHL team has access to Thunder Hockey HD, a powerful video analysis software which allows backroom staff to cut film and label events at game speed. If Claude Julien and his staff have that system set up to tag transitional events in addition to the traditional labels used by coaches (Shots/Chances, D Zone coverage, N Zone forecheck, OZ Play, Faceoffs, etc.), then all they need to do now is to pull up an automated playlist of exits and entries, and review individual plays until they hit on some nugget of insight which they can transmit to their players during Friday’s practice or Saturday’s pre-game film session.

A positive outcome will be contingent on the coaches finding the right thing to address, communicating the adjustment to the players and the latter being able to execute. With their backs against the wall, there is no guarantee that even a perfect plan, perfectly implemented would allow the Habs to force Game 7. But it can’t hurt to try. Time will tell.