Examining the breakout: The St. Louis Blues exposed what works and what doesn’t for the Montreal Canadiens
St. Louis' forecheck is one of the best in the league, giving us a great chance to analyze the Habs’ breakout strategies.
The St. Louis Blues run one of the best forechecks in the league. In their matchup with the Montreal Canadiens on December 5, few Habs defencemen fared well against the intense collapse of the Blues’ big forwards.
Shea Weber had completed the most passes across the blue line to exit the zone, but even he struggled against the fast approaching opposition.
The two-man pressure employed by the Western Conference’s top team is an aggressive approach that forces turnovers deep in the defensive zone. It results in moments of chaos that can create great scoring chances.
St. Louis doesn't use the same forecheck every time, making it even more difficult to deal with. It's up to their forwards to read the play and adjust to be effective at countering the breakout. They can either spread, with each forward taking one defender and collapsing on the D-to-D pass ...
... Or, they can stay on the same side and take away all the options on one half of the ice. This second method is usually used when the first forechecker is in a 50-50 race for the puck.
But even when the Blues use only one player deep in the zone, the other forwards are not far behind. They are ready to jump on any pass forced by the initial pressure.
This is far from the Ottawa Senators' passivity. Habs players going below the goal line for the puck were forced to make quick decisions.
Let's take a look at a few moments from that game to see what went wrong for the Habs.
Breakout #1: Schlemko
Checking for options only after you get the puck back can be costly. The available space to break out is closing with every second in possession wasted going forehand to backhand looking for an outlet.
Had David Schlemko checked over his shoulder before getting possession, the Habs would have been out of their zone. Not necessarily vis the outlined route, but the defenceman would definitely have executed a quicker pass to Jacob de la Rose, knowing the centre was right behind him.
De la Rose would then have had more time himself to get the puck up to his winger on the boards, instead of dumping it to Victor Mete, who couldn't do much facing the immediate pressure of the Blues.
Breakout #2: Weber
Someone who is aware of the ice at all times is Weber. This allows him to make the ‘good first pass’ that is often stated as one of the defenceman's primary qualities.
However, his play can still be plagued by slow execution.
On this attempted breakout, Weber had to get the puck to Jordie Benn as fast as possible, be it by turning immediately to use his forehand, or backhanding the puck. Weber failed to do either of those, and the delayed pass he made to Benn had him rush a dump-out that was ultimately intercepted.
Just a few seconds later, the reverse play they executed was a lot more effective at breaking the pressure. Weber made sure to drag the forechecker with him along the back wall, waiting for a lane to open before dropping the pass to his now less-covered defence partner. Benn then looked for a pass to Alex Galchenyuk.
I'm not sure what #27 was doing off-screen.
There's a possibility he might have chugged some rocket fuel at the bench and was just racing back to position, but he usually has to be lower on the boards, ready to receive so that he can then redirect the puck to his centreman or skate it out himself.
Breakout #3: Galchenyuk
This attempt to exit the zone found Galchenyuk slowly getting to the rim pass relayed by Mete and Schlemko. As the winger arrives to the boards, he tries to slam the puck off them to get it out. This is a difficult but efficient way to clear the zone when in a tight spot.
But it's likely that Galchenyuk had time to receive the puck properly and look for a breakout through the middle of the ice first. It was something that Claude Julien asked of his players during the game (per his post-game conference) as the Blues were very effective at taking the boards away.
It’s possible that the dump-out Galchenyuk attempted could have been immediately recovered by the Habs in the neutral zone had it not hit the Blues player marking him, but a controlled breakout — a pass to the centre — is generally a lot more effective at creating offence.
Breakout #4: Hudon
Those passes are harder to make directly from the back of the zone, especially for defencemen who don't have good puck-handling skills under pressure — which is the case for several of the Habs’ blue-liners. This is why we see them rely on their wingers, as they are the easy outlet from pressure.
It demands a lot of those forwards as they receive rimmed puck after rimmed puck and are responsible for getting it out of the zone with opponents wise to the strategy and pinching down to close the play off.
It takes poise, good decision-making, and quick execution to be able to do that in a controlled manner. It's an underrated part of the game.
Here, instead of getting the puck ahead to Tomas Plekanec immediately upon receiving it, Charles Hudon makes one too many moves. He didn't have the space to delay his play any further nor attempt a pass to Karl Alzner.
Breakout #5: Galchenyuk
Galchenyuk has some known decision-making issues, but he can sometimes put his skill to good use in the defensive zone as well.
In this play, in a similar spot to Hudon, he creates a controlled breakout with even less space to do so.
Mete is skating the puck up along the boards, simply wanting to dump the puck to Galchenyuk. The left-winger has seen Gallagher approaching with a few glances at his surroundings. He backs into the defender, and redirects the puck almost cleanly to his teammate, allowing the Habs to transition to the offence without having to battle to retrieve the puck from the Blues.
Breakout #6: Mete
The heavy forecheck probably affected Mete the most. The young defencemen was already trying to limit his mistakes; his playing time directly depending on it. When you add the big and fast forwards of the Blues crashing on him every time he had the puck, it was a recipe for less than optimal play.
That being said, there were also some impressive moments that displayed why the diminutive defenceman will be a cornerstone of Montreal's defence in the future.
In the clip below, he turns the puck over attempting what looks like a reverse play to Benn. However, the second breakout attempt is a different story.
Mete's puck-handling skills and agility allow him to use fakes and quickly adapt to what he sees in front of him. By abruptly switching direction after misleading his opponents into thinking he was giving the puck to his centreman, he freed the other side of the ice for Benn.
With a slightly better execution on the next pass, the Habs would have been out of the zone in possession of the puck, starting their rush toward the Blues’ end.
The Blues' intense forecheck worked wonders at locking up Montreal in their zone, mostly due to predictable breakout routes.
At times, the defencemen weren't aware of their options when going to retrieve the puck, costing them precious seconds. Or they executed too slowly, not giving a fair chance to their teammates to make a play after the first pass.
Under a lot of pressure, those defenders dumped the puck to their wingers too often forcing them to find a solution to get it out of the zone quickly, something they couldn't always pull off versus pinching Blues players expecting it.
The rare use of deception and a general lack of creativity turned into repeated usage of the boards that created problems for Montreal, and it directly led to the loss.
Clean breakouts, achieved by getting over your blue line with possession using the middle of the ice is the first step to creating offence.
The Habs were exposed in that game and will have to figure out a more efficient zone-exit strategy. They won't always be able to rely on Weber curveballs from the blue line to create goals.