Micro Analysis: Max Domi’s gambles didn’t pay off this time

He was able to create the winning goal versus Washington, but played a role in Vancouver’s last night.

In the last edition of this series, I touched on some of Max Domi’s bad habits, his penchant for edging toward offence in defensive situations, but more specifically his lack of situational awareness.

His assist on Ben Chiarot’s overtime goal against the Capitals stemmed from sub-optimal decisions. He extended his shift to take a low-percentage shot against three Caps defenders. Fortunately, the puck went to the boards, which allowed him to retrieve it and find Chiarot in the slot. If it had deflected toward an opponent instead, he would have been forced back into rush defence, completely gassed, unable to really stop the attack.

Domi got rewarded for his play; it created the game-winning goal. So again last night, the Habs’ centreman tried to play the part of the hero. After an extended defensive presence, he tried to rush up ice with the puck to end the game. This time, he ended up turning the puck over.

A passive Canucks attack still gave him a chance to change anyway a couple of seconds later. Domi skated toward the bench, and a teammate crossed over the boards to replace him, but instead Domi decided to circle back to the defensive zone. He spent another 20 seconds gliding in-zone, playing pretend defence before the Canucks scored.

From last Thursday’s article:

Sometimes making the sub-optimal choice in hockey can still lead to the best outcome. It’s why it’s hard to break certain habits for players, especially those who possess natural athletic advantages over others, like Domi with his speed. Getting a big reward like a breakaway from (literally) crossing the line defensively stays in the mind and overrides the multiple boring times where an extended defensive presence simply prevented another shot that could have been a goal, but since it never happened due to proper defensive positioning, doesn’t really get reinforced.

Making the right decisions, like clearing the puck and changing, allows the team to live to fight another day, to continue creating offence instead of walking down the tunnel in defeat. The players who can consistently do it over the course of the game are the ones rewarded with more ice time, roles higher in the lineup and ... longer contracts.

Paul Byron is a great example of such a continuously positive player for the Habs. At the top of his game, he is a big part of the team’s core identity; a predictable force for teammates. For this reason, and because of his matching speed, he represents a great complement for Domi.

Here’s a collection of clips of Byron taken from the first period. His defensive anticipation, his knack for pressuring opponents at the right time, and staying above the puck directly lead to two scoring chances for Domi.

Off the rush, his speed allowed him to attack open spaces ahead of the play and receive chip-passes from teammates to gain the zone, or to push back the line of defence. This last ability has earned him success for years with the Habs.

Byron loves to skate right into the middle of the defenders after a zone entry, forcing them to pivot and cover the net-drive threat. It opens up a ton of room behind him for puck-carrying teammates, who can cut to the slot to release or look for his stick around the blue paint.

Look at the seam Byron creates for Domi in the play above. The speedy winger blows past his man, who vainly pursues him, and forces a second defenceman to pull back and adopt a risk-mitigating position. As that defenceman slides down in between him and #13, he forfeits access to the slot.

This kind of situation fits Domi’s talents perfectly. He scored a good portion of his goals last season by coming behind the play with momentum and attacking the slot against helpless defencemen. Byron gives him such chances.

When Domi doesn’t have the space to execute those shots, he looks to send pucks to the net. It has been frustrating at times to see him waste possession by sliding the puck to the crease, hoping someone can deflect it in from there. Again, in his pairing with Byron, the centreman doesn’t have to hope that someone heads there to receive his passes, he knows his winger will rush to the blue paint for a tap-in almost every time.

It’s exactly what happened on their goal in the first period. Byron found the breakout in the defensive zone and then beat his coverage up the ice. Domi, twice, tried a no-look pass toward the net after entering the offensive zone from the wide lane. He succeeded the second time and Byron was there for the deflection.

This natural chemistry between Domi and a rejuvenated Byron is great news for the Habs. It has been hard at time to find a suitable partner for the centreman’s particular style this season, but Byron seems to both mitigate Domi’s weaknesses and add to his strengths. They also seem to enjoy playing together.

“Paulie Byron is probably the most under-rated player in the whole NHL and I love playing with someone like him,” Domi said. “He has so much speed and he works so hard. He’s an absolute warrior and you win with guys like that.” — The Chronicle Herald

The last month of the season is made for experiments, and at first look, this is the kind of duo that could serve the team very well heading into next season.

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