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Coaching adjustments pivotal factor in Habs-Rangers series

Exploring the cat-and-mouse game between Claude Julien and Alain Vigneault.

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NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Habs fans, it’s been a while!

As a writer for The Athletic, I don’t often have the opportunity to write about the Canadiens, though I’ve certainly kept an eye on the team’s progress throughout this season.

Since my third and final season coaching women’s hockey at the university level came to an end in double-overtime at the National Championship final, I’ve had some additional time to investigate the progress made by my hometown NHL franchise.

During the 2017 playoffs, I’ve been tracking transitional play for MTL vs NYR, TOR vs WSH and CHI vs NSH (data available on my Twitter page) using a similar template to the one I developed for the McGill Martlet hockey program.

The insights derived from the data gave us consistent feedback on coaching decisions and tactical progress, and are predictive of future performance in a way that past goals and wins are not. Because a team’s zone play is independent from (but certainly correlated to) their shot differentials, transitional data also provides a richer picture of how teams play their way to good or bad Corsi, Fenwick or Expected Goals numbers.

With the boring introductory bits out of the way, here’s a recap of the Montreal-New York series so far, and my take on what we may expect to see the rest of the way.

Game 1: MTL loses 2-0 (52% Corsi)

The first game of the series was remarkably representative of the style of transitional play adopted by both teams during the regular season. Under Claude Julien, the Habs have become better at moving the puck out of their defensive zone with control and creating more shot attempts than their opponents.

The Rangers, saddled with a relatively under-skilled defensive corps - Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Nick Holden being the most notable examples - often resorted to dumping the puck out of their end to relieve pressure, leading to hot-and-cold results at the other end of the ice.

Against the flow of play, New York got an early goal and were able to hold onto the lead the rest of the way.

Game 2: MTL wins 4-3 OT (59% Corsi)

It is possible that, after being shut out in Game 1, the Habs’ coaching staff told their players to go for more controlled entries. The stats certainly reflect that adjustment, as Montreal became a lot less risk-adverse when carrying the puck across the neutral zone. They went off-side or turned the puck over 45 times at the New York blue line, but carried or passed it in 46 times en route to evening the series.

For their part, the Rangers, up a goal midway through the third period, essentially parked the bus and stopped trying to do anything with the puck, ultimately setting the stage for Tomas Plekanec’s tying goal in the last minute of regulation.

Game 3: MTL wins 3-1 (55% Corsi)

Overall, it was another solid performance by the Canadiens, who dressed Torrey Mitchell and Brandon Davidson in lieu of the under-performing Andreas Martinsen and Nikita Nesterov.

However, back on home ice, the Rangers were starting to figure things out. Most notable is their improved controlled percentage when breaking out of their defensive zone (from 19 to 27 to 33% by Game 3), possibly related to Vigneault’s decision to swap Holden out for Kevin Klein.

Game 4: MTL loses 2-1 (42% Corsi)

The big story in Game 4 is how the Rangers’ forecheck suffocated the Montreal attack by hemming them in their end. Julien’s Bruins and Habs have traditionally depended on short, crisp plays to exit the defensive zone and to put pressure on the opposition by dumping the puck in and forcing turnovers.

Vigneault and his players were able to push the Habs back on their heels and prevent them from playing the type of pressing game they had relied upon in the first three games. The insertion of skilled forward Pavel Buchnevich into the lineup in place of Tanner Glass may have had something to do with that.

Game 5 and beyond

This is the one thing I’d try to figure out ASAP, if I were Claude Julien. Coming out of their end, the Habs seem to be a completely different team during the second period, than during the first and third periods. They had to move the puck out of their end more often (2nd column), turned the puck over more often (3rd column) and passed or carried it out cleanly less often (4th column). Nathan Ni found the same thing when looking at shot-based metrics here.

I don’t think it’s personnel driven, as for Games 3 and 4 the Habs have dressed what is in my estimation the best lineup possible. In my opinion, the hours before Game 5 would be much better used looking at solving the problem at the team level rather than at the player level.

Most likely, there is either something tactical that New York has discovered to work well against a possession-intensive team like Montreal, or a specific detail which the Habs have a harder time executing because of the long change in the second period. With some time spent reviewing game film, it is well possible to uncover the problem and address it either at practice or in the video room.

Take a look at the video below. Is this long D-zone shift in the second period of Game 1 a result of the players on the ice (two of them have subsequently been confined to the press box), the team’s structure (which has worked fine in the other periods), or something a bit more subtle?

As an example, one thing our coaching staff at McGill realized this spring before the third and deciding game of our provincial playoff series against University of Ottawa, was that we needed to tell our forwards to change two at a time instead of three, as to keep a degree of forechecking pressure and prevent the opposition from getting “cheap” controlled exits, penetrating our blue line and using three forward forecheckers to prevent our wingers and defensemen from doing their jobs properly.

On the brink of elimination (and not going to the National Championships), we shored up that weakness just in time and came away with a dominant 5-2 performance en route to our second provincial title and second national silver in three years.

(Stats via