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Canadiens vs. Penguins: Strategic keys for the qualification round — Defensive play

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Montreal needs to play a strong defensive game versus Pittsburgh, and that strategy needs to include the forwards.

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

In the previous parts of this series, I analyzed the Pittsburgh Penguins’ system and how the Montreal Canadiens could best exploit it offensively. However, the calling card of the Habs in this play-in series won’t be the offence, but a cohesive and hermetic defence.

Carey Price remains the best asset of the team. By limiting breakdowns, slowing down attackers, and giving the netminder predictable shots to absorb, the Habs could edge out a victory.

Puck management

It starts with puck management. As much as possible, players have to make positive decisions with the puck; choices that advance the play toward a scoring chance. However, if those positive plays don’t present themselves, they can’t be forced.

In previous encounters with the Penguins, some Habs players were guilty of taking shortcuts with the puck on their stick, Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin especially. This tendency to force plays partly explains why their pairing often led to poor possession numbers in the past two seasons and why the coaching staff has kept them separated headed into the qualifiers.

In the offensive-zone sequence, Domi pounces on a turnover and connects with Drouin. The winger locates Nick Cousins attacking the net — the preferred play of the grinder — but the two teammates stand in a sea of yellow jerseys. The defence knows that Drouin is looking to pass, but he still forces a centring feed toward Cousins, who doesn’t time his drive correctly with the pass and skates directly into a check. The puck gets intercepted and the Pens head the other way.

Domi lunges for the puck to try to stop the breakout. Jason Zucker easily dangles around the stick of the centreman and skates up ice on a three-on-two with his teammates. Cousins backchecks as hard as he can, but Drouin and Domi float back and let a trailing Pens player receive a drop-pass. Luck is on the side of the duo; the shot misses and the slow backcheck turns into a favorable counter-attack.

On the Habs’ own three-on-two, Domi tries to push his advantage. He holds on to the puck to attract one of the defenders to him with the goal of creating even more space for Cousins. Instead the pressure from the defender proves too great, and Domi waits too long. He misses his pass. A Pittsburgh backchecker intercepts the puck and rushes the other way to install an offensive presence.

The forced plays, the half-hearted defensive responses ... those are exactly the elements the Habs will need to avoid in their upcoming matchup. A back-and-forth game against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and their respective speedy, shooting wingers won’t be winnable. Yes, the Habs need to exploit space to cycle the puck and create cracks in the defensive walls, but attempting low-percentage plays, especially when more than a few players have skated deep in the opposition’s end, will rapidly sink the team.

Defending the blue line

Defencemen are often the ones tasked with neutralizing the opposition’s attacks through the neutral zone, but rush defence is a team affair. If forwards don’t fulfill their role — if they don’t backcheck, if they miss their assignments, if they over-pressure the puck-carrier — they can force their defencemen to give up access to the zone.

This season, Pittsburgh’s rush attacks challenged the Habs’ defence. Pens attackers regrouped, gathered speed, and managed to easily displace Montreal’s 1-2-2 forecheck to gain the offensive end. As we outlined in the first article of this series, the 1-2-2 forecheck is vulnerable to long feeds across the ice or drop-passes that allow attackers to strike with a runway. Those became the main ingredients of Pittsburgh rush attacks versus the Canadiens.

Montreal will have to become extra-vigilant in watching for circling attackers and shifting passing lanes to shut them down. They could also apply a more conservative neutral-zone approach against the speedy Pens in the play-in series.

The Tampa Bay Lightning used a 1-1-3 formation against Pittsburgh in February with success. You can see it illustrated at the end of the video above. This forecheck still has one forward (F1) stirring the play to one side of the ice and pressuring the opposing defencemen, and another one stepping up against the attack when the opponents enter the neutral-zone, but the rest of the formation plays much more conservatively. The F3 joins his defencemen to form a line at the blue line, and the three players lock down all skating lanes in the neutral zone and stop long cross-ice passes.

The 1-1-3 lacks the aggressiveness of the 1-2-2, but better locks down the width of the ice. It also allows the team to transition into their defensive zone coverage more fluidly.

The particular circumstance of the play-in series might not make it the best occasion to change a system, but the 1-1-3 forecheck has been used by Montreal in the past. If anything, it could help them wall off the Penguins after gaining a lead.

The Pens’ breakouts also gave the Habs trouble in previous matchups. Like many other NHL formations, Pittsburgh sends their weak-side forward (the one on the side opposite to the puck) slashing across or driving wide in the neutral zone ahead of the play. That gunning forward caught the defence off-guard more than a few times. He also repeatedly pushed the line of defence back to create space for his teammates, which made handling the following rush very difficult for Montreal.

The F3 is often the key to stopping the opposing breakout, but too often in previous games that highest forward skated hard at the puck-carrier from across the ice when he had no chance of catching up and creating a direct turnover. Additionally, in response to F3’s drive across, the defencemen were also late to shift back laterally to check the slashing forward, leaving him free to receive passes.

Better communication between forwards and defenceman would help nullify this issue. If the attacker rushing up continues to cause problem for the team, however, adopting a new strategy might help.

As illustrated at the end of the video, if Tampa Bay’s F3 sees he won’t catch the puck-carrier skating along the wall in time, he backs off in the opposite wide lane to join the line of defence. By stepping back, he can check the slashing attacker himself, and he allows his defencemen to pinch down on the puck-carrier instead.

Forechecking strategies have their strengths and downsides, but they all require the same element: discipline. When the Habs step on the ice for the opening match against the Penguins, it will be the first official contest they will have played in more than four months. A higher level of preparation and buy-in on the defensive side of the game will very likely decide the winner of the series.