It’s rare that a first game of the season feels almost like a playoff game. The execution from both the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes was a lot crisper than we can usually expect from a season debut. Here are a few interesting plays in what is proving to be a forming rivalry between the two clubs.
Nick Suzuki/Max Domi
Suzuki had a quiet debut, but this sequence stood out. It has been said ad nauseaum, but the rookie isn’t known for his speed; he finds ways around it by being more imaginative than his peers. This specific play wasn’t the safe one to make, but it also wasn’t risky. Suzuki’s internal risk gauge seems to have already tuned itself up the the NHL, and he seems to have a good idea of what he can try.
Circling up in a breakout sequence, he received a board pass from Shea Weber. Pitted against two defencemen, the options were limited. He couldn’t out-skate his opposition, because they would close on him before the blue line.
Most would have dumped the puck here. Not Suzuki. He looked around and saw Lehkonen on his left, but a defensive stick closed that passing lane. So he peeked over his other shoulder and located Domi.
The drop-pass to Domi allowed the centreman to attack the neutral zone with speed and dangle through. The difference in momentum also gave him a step on the last defenceman to attempt a deflection on yet another great pass from Suzuki.
Last year, Domi scored a handful of goals on drop-passes from Jonathan Drouin, who similarly found him a few steps behind striding in between the dots. Domi’s partnership with Suzuki might need some time to gel — the youngster is taking his first steps in the NHL — but the early indications on their chemistry are encouraging.
Carolina’s offensive system
There are a few things Montreal could learn by rewatching this game. The main takeaway is how the Hurricanes run their offence. Their puck movements in the offensive zone lead to more pressure, panic from the defence, and more scoring chances.
Too often, Montreal focuses its offensive-zone movement to the strong side, meaning they cycle passes on the puck side of the ice.
Carolina instead takes advantage of the width of the ice. They move the puck toward the weak side of the ice (the one where the puck isn’t) using the back of the net by either carrying from one side to the other or using long rims. This forced Montreal’s defence to continuously move from side to side, leading to fatigue and opening up shooting lanes from the point against those weary players who were not able to get into blocking position in time.
Montreal also uses a ton of point shots, but since the puck doesn’t move as much in the offensive zone before it gets there, it’s harder for blue-liners to find a lane to fire the puck through.
Against sustained offensive-zone pressure and a pounding forecheck, it’s no surprise the Habs spent a lot of the third period in their own zone. The ‘Canes upped the intensity and clean breakouts became almost impossible. It’s hard to support a zone exit when your formation is disjointed.
It was an inspired performance from Drouin. He executed some difficult transition plays.
I don’t think for Drouin it is ever about simplifying the game, and that’s not what he did last night. Some of his plays were risky, but they worked. Dumping the puck in, playing the cycle game, going to the net .. that isn’t how he’ll find success. When he is engaged and is timing is right, he will pull off plays others can’t.
He picked his moment to attack with speed and challenged defenders. He involved his whole body into feints to make opponents miss on the puck and separated with his speed once he got the puck through. This was especially evident in the first sequence in the video.
After a failed breakout, the puck bounces to him with all passing lanes covered. He fakes a backhand pass, goes around a first forechecker then a second, and when the puck leaves his stick in the direction of a teammate, it leaves a third one behind.
By making the difficult play, Drouin turned what should have been at best an uncontrolled breakout, or at worse a turnover, into an advantageous situation for his team. He attracted and then beat the pressure, making the play easier for his teammates.
Being relegated to the third line to start the year isn’t what Drouin envisioned when he worked out this summer. If his confidence and execution can stay this high for a stretch of time, he could turn this bottom-six line into the main offensive weapon of the Habs — especially considering how Jesperi Kotkaniemi controlled the play with his impressive reach and timing.
Despite his forechecking and puck-protection prowess, Joel Armia may not be the ideal partner for this line. His awareness of teammates’ position under pressure and tendency to funnel pucks on net doesn’t always fit well with his partners’ desires to first create breakdowns in the defence before attempting shots.
That being said, this is only the first game, and there’s plenty of time for things to come together for everyone involved.