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Canadiens vs. Penguins: Strategic keys for qualification round — Offensive-zone play

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Breaking their “get it on net” mentality will help the Habs’ against a rusty Pittsburgh defence

Pittsburgh Penguins v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

In the first installment of this series, I analyzed the Pittsburgh’s forecheck and backcheck and how they pressured Montreal and other NHL teams. To break their traps and create scoring chances off the rush, one tactic influenced all the others: finding and weaponizing space.

As we switch our focus to offensive-zone play, this same principle will remain equally important.

Building the offence

The Habs funnel pucks on net in the offensive zone. While all teams use that strategy to a certain extent, it has become the spearhead of Montreal’s attack.

The team aims to create shots, often from the point, as quickly as possible. They then stack the front of the cage to capitalize on tips and rebounds. Those can sometimes become high-danger chances and be recorded as such in advanced stats platforms like Natural Stat Trick or HockeyViz, but they happen inside a well-set defence with no prior lateral movement. The opposition is drilled to counter that strategy by instantly regrouping around the blue paint to neutralize any play on the puck. Some do slip through and hit the netting, but the strategy, to an extent, relies on shot volume and luck of the draw.

hockeyviz.com

On the above heatmap, the region where the blue line meets the boards and the front of the net lights up for the Habs, meaning that they shoot far more from that area than other teams.

Control should be the operative word for the Montreal Canadiens’ offence. By practicing patience, puck rotations and space, by building scoring chances instead of hoping for a generous bounce, the Canadiens could instill more creativity and diversity in their offence and make themselves harder to shut down. And a play-in series against a rusty defence that lacks timing and coordination is the perfect setting for the Habs offence to get away from this ‘‘get it on net’’ mentality to start cycling the puck and manufacturing breakdowns.

The main goal of a team inside the offensive end should be to make the defence crumble; each puck movement, executed rapidly and with purpose, should chip away at the walls of the opposition to form cracks to exploit.

To create breakdowns, Montreal should first use space. When the disc first arrives on the walls of the offensive end, the team should move it away from the grouped defence to the weak side of the ice (the one opposite to the puck) or to the top of the zone to their defencemen. Then, players receiving possession should attack that space. Forwards should threaten the slot and defencemen should come down from the point, taking full control of the available ice to force defenders to pressure them quickly, leaving their scramble attackers free for more dangerous passes.

All five players should be mindful of the shots they take. Don’t spray and pray; delay and outplay. A fake shot that sucks in a defender and opens a passing lane can prove more deadly than a puck fired through walls of bodies.

Lastly, scoring chances are created through purposeful off-puck movements. Attackers away from the puck need to always seek space. They should not group in an area. This makes the job of defenders easier — a herd can easily be guarded. Teammates should spread out and force defenders to do the same to cover them, which opens space in the slot to attack when passing, tip, or rebound opportunities arise.

Here are a few offensive sequences of the Canadiens against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the first two, the red, white, and blue team show a clear ‘‘get it on net fast’’ mentality, but in the last one, they apply the above principles and manage to create breakdowns and much more threatening looks.

Taking advantage of Evgeni Malkin’s defensive lapses

According to HockeyViz and Natural Stat Trick, Evgeni Malkin defended his end of the ice better in 2019-20. Against the center, opponents were expected to shoot from further away, and in turn, to score less this season than in most previous ones.

Hockeyviz

Malkin’s expected goals are way above average (+22%). His defensive numbers don’t match his offensive output, but he manages to defend at a league average level (0%).

But this late in their career, can players really change?

Malkin is still susceptible to lapses away from the puck due to a lack of awareness and to wishful thinking that the defensive situation will resolve itself without necessitating his full engagement.

Pittsburgh’s top two lines will more than challenge the spread-thin talent of Montreal, but if there is one Pens trio that could open the doors to the crafty, energetic scoring elements of the Habs, it’s Malkin’s. He might fend off the first assaults, and do so easily with his newfound resolve that helps him cut off the opposition this season, but at some point, the pesky attacks of the small, buzzing Habs forwards, cycling the puck, supporting each other on the walls, moving into space, and darting in and out of the slot, will overload him. They will slip away and score.

Claude Julien’s strategy heading into the matchup seems to disperse his best elements on multiple lines. But if it becomes clear that Malkin has reverted back to his old offence-first self, the head coach could try to squeeze another goal or two out of his formation by building a more creative, quick, and lethal trio for offensive-zone faceoffs against the Pens second line center.

In this play-in series, the Canadiens should stack all of the advantages they can. Only hoping that what they’ve been doing all season will work against the Pens won’t be enough. They shouldn’t fire every puck on net and hope that they go in off a deflection or a rebound, they should control the flow of the offensive zone play, create breakdowns until they build a positional edge over the opposition and then strike. And they should try some creative matchups to take advantage of the historical weaknesses of certain elements of the Pittsburgh formation.