Shutting down the Auston Matthews line

The Canadiens did well versus the Leafs’ top trio, but there’s room for improvement as the series goes on.

The Montreal Canadiens have to become comfortable being uncomfortable.

The coaching staff could devise dozens of plans to stop Auston Matthews’s line in this series, but it would be time wasted. No matter the pressure Montreal puts up ice, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first unit will get their offensive sequences. They will find ways to maintain possession, start a wide cycle around the zone, and put the Habs’ defence under duress. Erasing them from a game completely is not a realistic objective. There is just too much skill on that line.

So for the Canadiens, it is about getting comfortable holding the last line of defence: the slot.

Take a look at this sequence from Toronto’s matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets in last year’s playoff bubble:

Columbus won that series not because they controlled the flow of the play — they only did for stretches — but moreso because they played a patient brand of defence. No panic, no overextending, but constant engagement and urgency.

As the Leafs installed their offence in their zone, the Blue Jackets grouped themselves in the slot. They let the opposition circle the periphery and exchange the puck. As blue-and-white attackers swirled, the Blue Jackets stuck to their assignments. They followed their check around, kept defensive side positioning, and waited for a Leafs forward to turn his back to the play or mishandle the puck to kill the offensive presence.

When Colombus applied its formula well, Toronto had possession of the puck but few optimal plays available. They were forced into less attractive choices: low-to-high passes, shots from the half-wall, and hope plays through three or four defenders.

This is the kind of strategy the Canadiens also have to apply against Matthews’s line in the remaining games of the series.

Here are a few clips I saved from Game 1. They all feature Toronto’s first trio.

You can see the Canadiens protecting the slot, blocking shots, and boxing out attackers from the from of the net. They defended the threat of that first line relatively well, but probably not well enough. Even if they didn’t get scored on, they still committed a few coverage errors that will cost them later in the series if not fixed.

Montreal’s defence pairings were a bit slow to adjust to Toronto’s side-to-side movement. Against that motion, one defenceman moves to pressure the puck in the corner and the other one reloads to the front of the net. On Thursday, a lack of urgency in that reloading moment opened a couple of scoring chances.

The forwards also have to be careful not to lose their assignments when the Leafs move the puck high. One blue-and-white attacker generally follows the puck to the top of the zone, enabling a counter-movement from a Toronto defenceman to come down across the ice. If he isn’t picked up in time, the Habs exposes themselves to backdoor plays.

The Canadiens were also guilty of underestimating the one-on-one skill of the opposition at times. The penalty on Phillip Danault at the end of the game comes to mind. He glided straight at Zach Hyman at the top of the zone expecting to block a point shot, but Hyman faked his release and went down the wall. Danault couldn’t adjust in time. His shot-blocking position or lack of lower-body flexion didn’t allow him to explode to match Hyman’s movement. He ended up falling to the ice and tripping his man.

It wasn’t an overall poor defensive night from Danault. He is usually smart in his defensive posturing. He keeps his knees bent, shadows attackers well, and, more importantly, approaches them at an angle to force them into suboptimal plays. But in the playoffs against a high-powered offence, any lapse can prove costly.

Applying a more conservative, patient style of defence against the Leafs might not feel like the right strategy — it will certainly raise the blood pressure of fans watching the game — but if the Canadiens can wall off the slot, if they can reduce the quality of chances of the Matthews line (even if they increase in quantity), the Canadiens will give themselves their best chance to win, especially considering the current strength of Carey Price’s game.

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