Although the roster was largely the same, the Montreal Canadiens team that took to the Scotiabank Arena ice Wednesday night, for the most part, barely resembled the shell of a team that stumbled through the 2017-18 season. The Canadiens put in a valiant effort, frustrating the Toronto Maple Leafs with their speed and tenacity, and were unfortunate to leave Toronto with only a single point.
However, the result of the game — a 3-2 overtime victory for the Leafs — was indicative of the influence that short bursts of brilliance from elite players can have on a game. All three Toronto goals came as a result of relatively minor lapses by Montreal players, but small openings are all that the likes of Auston Matthews and John Tavares need.
One place where the ability of elite players to make something out of nothing is magnified is the power play. Alex Ovechkin is perhaps the best example of this, given that his trademark one-timer has been on display for over a decade now, yet no one has been able to consistently defend it. When elite players are given extra time and space, the margin for error of the defence becomes infinitesimally small.
Although the Habs were much improved Wednesday night, their penalty kill still demonstrated ample room for improvement. The PK was definitely up against the wall versus the powerhouse of Tavares, Matthews, and Mitch Marner. There were things that the Habs could have done to increase their chances, and the most obvious flaw remains the inability to seal passing lanes.
On the surface, the Matthews goal was an audacious act of skill from one of the best shooters in the league. However, if we look at the sequence leading up to it, we can see several points at which the Habs could have nipped the whole situation in the bud before Matthews ever takes that shot.
The sequence starts with Matthews holding the puck along the left-side boards. He passes it back to Morgan Rielly at the point, who quickly slides it over to Marner just above the right circle.
Marner receives the puck facing Frederik Andersen, but immediately turns and fakes a shot. Because Jordie Benn is fronting the shot, Nazem Kadri is open in the slot. Phillip Danault therefore fronts that particular passing lane, but it means that the best he can do to cover the cross-ice feed to Matthews is limply extend his stick. Likewise, Artturi Lehkonen has glided too far forward to challenge Rielly and can’t pivot quickly enough to cover.
Marner wires a hard slap-pass beyond the sticks of Danault and Lehkonen. Yes, it’s a tough play, but it’s a play that elite players make. Jeff Petry makes a last-second lunge in vain, but all that serves to do is put him out of position. Matthews corrals the puck, and now all hell has broken loose.
Danault, having gone to his knees to block the lane to Kadri, is completely out of the play. Benn, having fronted the shot, is now on the wrong side of Kadri. And in front of the net, completely undefended ... is Tavares.
Matthews duly slides a quick pass between the stick and skate of a lead-footed Petry, but Tavares is stoned by the left pad of Carey Price. Danault, thanks to being out of position, is first to the rebound, but is quickly pinned against the boards by Kadri and Marner, as Tavares drifts in to support.
The other three Habs are watching the puck. Benn, despite seeing all three players that he is supposed to mark make a beeline for Danault, fails to give the Habs centre a backhand outlet by moving behind the net. Danault has no choice but to switch to his forehand, at which point Kadri steals the puck and moves it back to the right point, where Rielly is waiting.
Rielly moves the puck over to Matthews in space with time, and Matthews makes no mistake. But even if his shot hadn’t been inch perfect, an unguarded Kadri had swooped in front of Danault and was ready for any rebound, a shot-tip, or even a slot slap-pass.
While there were certainly many errors afterward, the entire sequence was set up by Marner’s cross-ice pass to Matthews and how it caught two penalty-killers out of position. Here, Benn needs to trust in Price — and trust that Marner can’t beat him with a shot from the top of the circle.
If Benn ignores the shot, that sets up a hypothetical scenario where Benn drops down to cover Tavares and Danault drops back to take Kadri. This leaves Marner in space and the cross-ice pass to Matthews still open, but Matthews would no longer have slot options upon receiving the pass. If Marner hesitates, Lehkonen has enough time to cut off the cross-ice lane.
Alternatively, Benn can move up to cover Kadri, leaving Danault free to take away the cross-ice pass. This does leave Tavares open down low, but the Leafs’ prized off-season acquisition has his back to Price, and would theoretically have to turn to shoot in tight quarters, giving Benn a chance to react and recover. Not optimal, but certainly better than Tavares receiving the puck while alone and facing Price, which is what actually happened.
The Canadiens have made significant strides already, just one game into this new season, but their penalty kill still shows signs of last year’s “block the shot, ignore the pass” mentality. The Habs would do well to remember that Price, at his best, is one of the premier shot-stoppers in the NHL, and that their efforts should be spent making the shots he faces stoppable and routine, rather than trying to prevent shots from reaching the net altogether.