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The Canadiens’ strategic puck pursuit grounded the Flyers

Not everyone will be happy with the win, but everyone should be happy with what the Habs displayed on Broad St.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

“[Pressing the opposition] lets you win back the ball nearer to the goal. It’s only one pass away from a really good opportunity.”
Jurgen Klopp, manager, Liverpool FC

“Maybe one day they will change the rules but I think to score a goal you need the ball.”
Pep Guardiola, manager, Manchester City FC

Generally speaking, puck-possession in the game of hockey translates to goals, which in turn translates to wins. The concept is hardly rocket science. However, coaxing a team to convert these theoretical principles into tangible on-ice results is a whole other matter.

Long-time observers of the Montreal Canadiens will know that the team, across different coaches and different generations of players, has always produced better results when it was more aggressive in its puck pursuit and retrieval. The same Canadiens faithful will also recognize that the Habs have had no luck when it comes to consistently maintaining the levels of puck-hunger necessary for long-term success.

Winning the puck is not as simple as just “wanting it more.” Pure aggression must be tempered by proper timing, strategic positioning, and coordination with other teammates. The best puck-pressing strategies involve multiple stages or layers, where the objective of the initial attacker/forechecker isn’t to win the puck, but force the opposition to play it into an area where teammates are lying in wait.

It is this tactical depth that Martin St-Louis is trying to impart on the Canadiens, and on Friday night against the Philadelphia Flyers, the team’s application and execution of these principles played a large part in their 5-2 victory.

The most obvious example of where the Canadiens’ puck pressure directly paid off was their second goal on the night. Michael Pezzetta crashes into the Flyers zone, out-battles two defenders, and sends the puck into the slot for a waiting Chris Tierney, all with mere seconds left in the first period.

Pezzetta’s understanding of the clock situation is what creates this play. The Canadiens forward recognizes that there isn’t enough time to tie up the puck or win possession outright. He also recognizes that there’s no risk of a turnover to hurt the team, as there isn’t enough time for the Flyers to skate the length of the ice. The only play here that can impact the scoreboard is to get the puck into the slot ASAP. Fortunately for the Canadiens, Tierney is on the same wavelength as Pezzetta, and has quietly slipped in between four orange shirts in order to make himself a scoring threat.

This may, again, seem like common sense, but the Flyers defensive posture here indicates otherwise. Despite outnumbering the Canadiens four to two — or maybe because of it — Philadelphia defends the play as if they expect Montreal to create a scrum on the boards. Wade Allison keys in on Pezzetta’s body rather than his stick or the puck, Rasmus Ristolainen defends the non-existent threat of Alex Belzile on the half-wall for some inexplicable reason, Cam York stations himself at the near post in case Pezzetta walks out from the corner with the puck, and Kevin Hayes positions himself at the far-side faceoff dot in order to ward off a non-existent trailer or launch a physics-bending counter-attack. Philadelphia is playing as if there were five minutes left in the period, rather than five seconds, and is caught flat-footed as a result.

This sequence was representative of the night as a whole. Montreal’s desire to regain puck possession also played a big role in their first goal, where an aggressive forecheck at the offensive blue line prevented Joel Farabee from clearing the puck properly. A continued aggressive mentality brought the puck back into the zone while the Flyers were still in the midst of a line change, which in turn opened the door for David Savard to jump up into the play.

Montreal’s aggression also created their fifth goal, which was a near carbon copy of their second, only with more time left on the clock.

Throughout the night, the Canadiens sought to stamp their authority onto the game by never letting the Flyers establish any sort of rhythm or tempo. When they had the puck, they passed it into spaces vacated by pursuing orange shirts for teammates to pick up. When Philadelphia collapsed its coverage, Montreal was more than content to cycle around the perimeter and constantly probe for interior weaknesses. When the Flyers had possession, the Canadiens did everything in their power to not just attack the puck-carrier, but also attack any potential outlets for that puck-carrier. Outside of a four- or five-minute salvo at the start of the third period, the ice was firmly tilted towards Carter Hart’s end.

A winning result will not please all Canadiens fans in this conflicted season, but it’s hard for even the tankiest supporters to not be happy about the on-ice process and mentality displayed by St-Louis’s charges Friday night. More than wins or losses, it’s these efforts that show the faithful that change is afoot in Montreal and progress is being made.