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Assessing the eight things to watch for in the Montreal Canadiens’ game versus the Toronto Maple Leafs

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There were some questions going into the exhibition game versus Toronto, and the answers weren’t exactly encouraging.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

A day before the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs played their one exhibition game before the Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin, we proposed eight things to watch for from the match. Its result may not have held any consequence for either team, but it was the first proper test for teams after a lengthy hiatus. Now that the game is complete, we’ll look at how each of them played out.

The game shape of Max Domi and Brett Kulak

Domi and Kulak were the two mainstays with the least practice time in training camp, so they weren’t going to be at the same level of match fitness as their teammates on Tuesday night. Perhaps in response to that, Claude Julien sent Domi out for 18:23 versus Toronto.

It was an offensive deployment at five-on-five for Domi, seeing five faceoffs in the Maple Leafs’ end and only one in his own. Despite that, he was one of the bottom forwards in terms of possession with a Corsi-for percentage of 44.4%, and saw five shots get to Carey Price and only two to Leafs starter Frederik Andersen. It seems he still has some distance to go to get into a competitive condition.

With so much time spent on special teams — nine penalties were assessed in the contest — Kulak was called upon quite often for five-on-five shifts. He ranked third on the team in ice time at full strength, only about half a minute behind Shea Weber. He was able to break even in possession, with scoring chances just slightly in Toronto’s favour in his minutes. It at least shows he’s recuperating well from dealing with COVID-19, and he should be closer to his top level with another few days before the qualifiers begin.

Which young centre gets trusted the most?

Nick Suzuki wasn’t just the most-used centre among the trio of him, Domi, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, but saw the most ice time of any forward on the team. His 19:53 included nearly seven minutes on the power play and even a shift on the penalty kill.

His most common opposition was the line of William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Zach Hyman, and he enjoyed two-thirds of the shot attempts in those minutes. He was also at 50% or better versus the John Tavares line; his second-most-common opposition.

There were a few issues. He was on the ice for both short-handed goals, and his failure to stay with his man was what allowed Alex Kerfoot to score the first one. He did make up for that mistake with an excellent assist on Tomas Tatar’s goal seconds after a power play came to an end.

Kotkaniemi only played 13:24, so any questions of which player Julien was planning to play versus Evgeni Malkin seem to have been answered. Despite the big difference in total time on ice, he played just as much versus Matthews’s line as Suzuki, and fared even better. So, at the centre position at least, the coaching staff should be fairly happy about their standing going into the weekend.

How much effort will Julien put into line-matching?

All the special-teams play — nearly a third of the 60 minutes — didn’t really help the flow of the game, nor aid in getting the players their regular shifts.

Phillip Danault played the most against each of Toronto’s top-six lines, though Matthews was given nearly equal doses of Danault, Suzuki, and Kotkaniemi.

Faceoff locations
Natural Stat Trick

Rather than line-matching, the coach seemed more concerned with zonal deployments. There weren’t many end-zone starts at even strength in the game, but Danault was tasked with the most in his own end, while Domi was given the most on the attack.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Julien use a similar tactic versus the Pittsburgh Penguins without a fourth line he can bury. However, having one he needs to shelter, handing the prime offensive opportunities to his depth pieces, may not be the wisest plan.

Jonathan Drouin’s play

Had the Canadiens come out of their own dressing room in front of their fans rather than Toronto’s to an empty arena, there would have been some loud “oohs” and “ahhs” as Drouin pestered a Leafs defenceman on an early shift, stole the puck, and nearly scored a goal off his takeaway. It was one of the top plays of the game, and answered questions about his health right off the bat.

On a shift soon afterward, he stickhandled his way into the offensive zone, but was unable to make anything of it. One of his faults is his tendency to overhandle the puck, and that was another case of trying to do too much on his own.

He wasn’t particularly noticeable after his great forecheck, and couldn’t help the team get going on the power play. If he can show the same energy he had on that strip of the puck throughout the games in the Pittsburgh series, he will create plenty of scoring chances. It could be a frustrating series for him and the team if he doesn’t use his teammates more.

Will any adjustments be made to the power play?

The answer to that question is a resounding “no.” In fact, the power play may have been worse on Tuesday night than it was in the regular season, and that’s no mean feat. Montreal had five full-two-minute chances on the power play, and not only did they score no goals, they allowed two short-handed markers.

They’re unable to get set up with the puck in the offensive zone, and when they do get ahold of it, it always looks like they’re being outnumbered by the opposition and forced to move it to another player. It should be the penalty-killers under the most stress in the odd-man situation, but that’s not the case in Montreal’s setup.

At points Shea Weber was the quarterback at the blue line in an attempt at a 1-3-1 alignment. That not only completely neutralizes his shot, but exposes his lack of playmaking ability.

The best work from the power-play unit came as a Leafs player was exiting the box. Not wanting to move the puck to the point where the freed skater was recovering to, Suzuki and Tatar worked lower in the zone, and it led to a goal. It’s no surprise that leaving the offence in the hands of skilled forwards can lead to success, but it seems to be a difficult lesson for Kirk Muller and Julien to learn.

Montreal’s shots and unblocked shot attempts on the power play
HockeyViz

From 12 full minutes of time with an extra player on the ice, that volume of shots from those locations isn’t going to cut it.

Can Montreal do a better job of protecting the crease on the penalty kill?

The Canadiens did a decent job in their six minutes of time spent a man down. Their left post wasn’t attacked as much as it had been during the regular season, and only two shots came from directly in front of the net.

Toronto’s shots and unblocked shot attempts on the power play. The red dots are the short-handed goals, not power-play shots.
HockeyViz

The fact that Toronto’s plot looks nearly the same as Montreal’s does despite half the time to work with further shows how powerless Montreal’s man advantage was.

Do Price’s slow starts haunt him and the team once more?

Well a goal 33 seconds in certainly didn’t help silence the goaltender’s detractors, but that wasn’t the reason Montreal loss the game. He was good throughout the night, but still allowed four goals with no highlight-reel saves (it is understandable that he wasn’t going to overextend himself in a meaningless game). The defence will need to be better in front of him, and the power play can’t give up better looks than it gets, but when the games start to matter Price will need to be a difference-maker for his outmatched club.

With no fans to create energy, which player becomes the team’s cheerleader?

The introduction of a five-second delay in the broadcasts hinted that more rink noises would be present for these games. But rather than let the sounds from the players on the ice and those on the bench serve as the game’s audio presentation (which MLS has done to great effect), the broadcast was filled with some pre-recorded crowd sounds to react to on-ice plays. You were able to hear more of the communication on the ice, but nothing was particular clear, save for a loud expletive when Dale Weise missed one of several in-tight chances (apparently the censor wasn’t paying much attention at that point).

What could have been a chance to offer a players’ perspective on the game has instead been an attempt to recreate a similar experience to the normal fan-filled arena, which doesn’t offer a new presentation.