Micro Analysis: The Canadiens’ top unit broke down the Islanders’ defences

The top line and top pairing worked together to snap a two-week slide.

The New York Islanders have been finding success through an ultra-conservative style for two seasons. Most opponents repeatedly hit themselves against their defensive wall, overextend, and get punished by their quick counter-attacks. It’s a proven formula for a team that is low on high-end talent but doesn’t lack discipline.

In the defensive zone, the sole focus of the Islanders is to protect the slot. They don’t want any shots to come from the area between the hash marks, the top of the circles, or the goal line. They push away offences to the periphery and won’t overcommit unless an opposing skater is off balance or has his back completely turned to the play.

This can lead to some comical sequences like this one:

Jesperi Kotkaniemi gets to the ice behind the net, but the Islanders defencemen hold their posts. They closely watch the movements of the Finnish centre, but don’t flush him out of this position. It would be too risky for them; Kotkaniemi is in full control of the puck and could slide under their stick if they are overly aggressive.

The whole defensive formation remains grouped inside the slot. Kotkaniemi makes a play to the outside, but it’s easily stopped by Thomas Greiss. There’s a bit of chaos after he gives a rebound, but again, all five Islanders are in the vicinity of the net where they can easily clear any loose pucks.

The defence’s bet is that most shots coming from the periphery will be blocked. Considering the known low conversion rate of point shots, they are correct in this assessment.

The main problem for attacking lines facing the Islanders’ formation — and that included Kotkaniemi’s in this sequence— is that they play into their hands. They rush the net or the shooting lane, stacking even more bodies in front of shots fired from too far away.

You can only say ‘‘good luck’’ to Ben Chiarot here. He has to thread the needle through five bodies, five sticks, 10 skates, and a set goalie. It might happen, the puck could pinball its way in, but he has even less control over the outcome than in the actual arcade game. It’s fire and pray.

Chiarot is forced into this shot because of the lack of movement from his teammates. Re-watch the whole offensive sequence, but focus on players away from the puck. More often than not, their feet are planted or barely moving. Movement is key. Otherwise, you make it too easy on the defence. Defenders should consistently have to account for the changing position of the puck itself and player away from it. That’s the way to create mistakes. You overload the ability of the defence to process the rapidly evolving situation in front of them.

Enter the Phillip Danault line. Art in motion.

Last night, the trio of Danault, Brendan Gallagher, and Tomas Tatar had some inspiring offensive-zone presences. They exuded confidence and displayed the great chemistry that seemed lost at times in the dark days of November, but really was just lying dormant, waiting for the right occasion to resurface.

Against the Islanders, the Habs’ first line thrived. They anticipated what the others would do and were a step ahead. They conserved great offensive spacing, using the width and length of the ice to their advantage, and they drew defenders out of the way of their teammates. They consistently supported and fed off each other, and above all, they moved their feet.

The Islanders are a solid defensive team. They can endure a ton of whirling within their zone before they get confused and start losing coverages. Still, they were no match for the creativity and teamwork of the Habs’ best trio.

What helped the Danault line is that they didn’t only rely on themselves. They involved their defensive pair every chance they got, giving them easy and predictable options to cycle the puck. To illustrate the way the trio methodically broke down the Islanders, there were plenty of great sequences to choose from, but this was perhaps the best one:

The first clip runs through the play, then the second one breaks it down in detail

This offensive presence didn’t lead to a goal, but it should have. It was almost cruel of the hockey gods to not reward the Habs with one after such a continued, dominant display of puck possession, especially since Chiarot got out of his comfort zone to make the decisive play that led to the best scoring chance.

The way he beat the defender, his little fake to the middle, was something you expect out of the top offensive defencemen in the league, not a player who has always been touted as more of a stay-at-home type.

Such a description isn’t fair to Chiarot. He has been way more than the prototypical defensive defenceman in the past few weeks, even through the losing streak. His pairing with Weber seems to have unexpectedly unleashed the offensive tendencies of both players.

More than that, Chiarot continues to blossom as a puck-mover, equaling Jeff Petry at times in the boldness of his moves and in his ability to misdirect the forecheck.

On a puck retrieval, Chiarot chained a bunch of skating techniques (lateral pushes, pivots, hard cutbacks) with a fake pass to gain a step on a pursuing opponent and hit Nate Thompson through the middle of the ice. His pass missed through no fault of his own — Thompson didn’t have his stick ready — but he didn’t panic. He corrected the turnover and sent a second pass through his legs  (I had to double check that that was really the case) to Thompson, who wasn’t asleep this time. It was high-end execution from Chiarot.

Danault, Gallagher, and Tatar may have propelled the ship last night, but the Chiarot and Weber pairing was the rudder, preventing it from crashing again.

This is the kind of performance to build on, where your best players are the ones driving the play.

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