Sometimes in hockey, it all comes down to who scores the first goal.
The first minutes of Saturday night’s game featured two teams playing a structured, patient style of hockey. The Winnipeg Jets got a few more chances than the Montreal Canadiens, but overall they sat back in their wide-lane-lock neutral-zone defence, waiting for their chance to attack. When they got the puck, they met a tight, five-man Habs group who rotated well inside their zone and closed all slot space.
Then it all changed with Josh Anderson’s goal.
We can’t really say that Montreal got lucky in the past few games, but last night the puck finally bounced their way. After some wide offensive-zone cycling from the newly-formed third (or is it second?) line of the Habs, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, under the pressure from multiple Jets defender, fired the puck around the glass. Instead of circling the back wall, as expected, it deflected hard to the stick of Anderson, who stood alone in the slot, in front of a deserted cage; Connor Hellebuyk had gone to catch the anticipated rim.
That first goal, as fortunate as it was, allowed the Habs to dictate the rest of the engagement. From the second period on, they didn’t leave any space to the opposition. Players executed Dominique Ducharme’s systems perfectly, over and over again, showing discipline, intensity, and a great feel for positioning. The second goal, especially, came off two perfect forechecking sequences from Phillip Danault’s line and then Kotkaniemi’s.
Ducharme hasn’t changed the Canadiens’ forecheck all that much. It is now a little less aggressive up ice; F1 pressures alone while F2 and F3 show more restraint, and the defensive pair sits back, often in the neutral zone.
This new, more passive style of forecheck doesn’t mean that the team generates fewer turnovers. They just create them differently.
In that second period, when a Jets player retrieved the puck in his zone and turned up ice, he might have had a bit of time to handle the puck than if he faced a Julien team. But what play could he make? Montreal removed most, if not all, of his options, forcing the Jets to execute poor passes that the Canadiens caught and turned into immediate scoring chances.
If the Jets tried to regroup and organize a controlled breakout, the Habs moved back to the neutral zone and shut them down with their similar 1-2-2 neutral-zone forecheck.
A tight forecheck makes it very hard for the other team to ever launch an attack. Winnipeg’s offence couldn’t coordinate. They played fetch-the-dump-in without the speed to back it up, which allowed Montreal to get the puck back first, quickly outnumber opponents on the breakout, make short passes, and attack the other way; a strategy they repeated until their lead became insurmountable.
The impact of Ducharme on the Canadiens was already quite evident in the past few games, even if the team didn’t chain wins together. But this last performance removed any doubt about the new coach’s ability to create a formula for success and get the team to buy into it. All players were on the same page last night. No cheating. No hero hockey. Just a group playing the established strategy.
This performance could really become a stepping stone for the rest of the seasn. It showed the players they can play this collective, well-structured game, and create a ton of offence through it.
I want to touch on another change of the Ducharme era: the in-zone defence. This excerpt is from an article by Eric Engels on the new system:
“A couple of weeks ago, the winger would get up to the hash marks and we’d have to pull back into the net area and let the forwards take care of them,” Joel Edmunson said. “We switched that. We’re staying on them.”
Man-on-man defence and zone defence are confusing concepts as teams use two different styles of coverage depending on whether the puck is low or high in the zone. But the important thing to know is that under Julien, Montreal’s defencemen would not follow their attacker to the top of the zone. If that player skated above the top of the circle, defencemen would release him to a forward.
Montreal’s blue-liners are built to defend the slot with their size, their strength, and their long reach. They can wall off the area quite effectively. The Julien system did play to the strengths of the team’s rear-guard (or was it the rear-guard that was built for the coach’s style?). But that system also created inevitable switches in coverage when the play moved high, switches that clever offensive teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs would exploit.
Now, the defencemen have to skate a bit more. They have to follow their man at the top of the zone and pressure up there.
Here is an example of the new rotation:
If Jeff Petry doesn’t accelerate to follow his check at the blueline here, the Jets get a two-on-one against Tomas Tatar. A quick give-and-go and they get past him to attack the slot. But Petry’s pressure forces Winnipeg to rush their play and lose control of the puck. After a series of short exchanges, Montreal exits the zone.
While Ducharme scaled back the aggressiveness on the forecheck, with his new defensive-zone strategy he gives less time to the opposition to organize its offence. As long as players are all tuned in, pursue their opponent closely, and avoid pick or screens, this tactic could prove effective to prevent the high cycles, the exchanges between forwards and defencemen that teams like the Leafs and the Canucks have an affinity for.
The strategy will be put to the test against Vancouver on Monday. The Canadiens made short work of the Canucks in their previous games, but since then the team tightened up defensively. They are also fresh off two giant wins against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They shouldn’t be underestimated.