Montreal Canadiens Need to Choose Their Playoff Identity

The Montreal Canadiens will face-off versus the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs for the first time since 1979. It’s safe to say things have changed since then as the oldest player on either roster, Joe Thornton, was born a few months after the series was won by the Canadiens.

One thing has remained, the Canadiens are a team built to play fire-wagon hockey, a style that uses speed on the rush and creates odd-man scoring chances for their high-danger scoring chances. Once established in the offensive zone, generate a high quantity of shots and then rely on tips and long rebounds to generate offence.

Thanks in large part to the COVID-19 break in mid-March, the condensed schedule took its toll on the Canadiens. It kept them from being able to truly play to whatever their team identity was supposed to be.

The Canadiens were obviously playing an uninspired form of hockey when they were on their eighth game in 13 nights. Then, injuries to key players started to pile up. Without any game-breaking talents, they white-knuckled their way to the playoffs, doing just enough to earn the fourth seed in the Scotia North Division. Their reward is the matchup vs. the division champion Maple Leafs. With a week off and some practice days, the Canadiens will have time to work on the key aspects of their game that can compete with the Leafs.

Coaching Decisions

As of the first practice during the week off leading to the playoffs, head coach Dominique Ducharme has begun with this lineup, provided by John Lu of TSN:

There’s a reliance on veterans, and Shea Weber isn’t dressed for this practice, so the assumption is Erik Gustafsson is in his position. To compete with the Maple Leafs and their use of speed, Ducharme will need bold and unexpected choices to ensure he has enough mobility on his blue line to handle the talent and speed of Toronto’s top-six forwards.

The Canadiens have had problems clearing their own zone in a controlled manner over the second half of the season, dropping their overall numbers down.  

Ensuring Alexander Romanov and Brett Kulak are in the lineup would increase the likelihood they exit the zone. The key will be to not fail the zone exit and get caught. If the Habs do get trapped in their own zone, Toronto’s skilled players can create confusion and generate several high-danger scoring chances and goals with their high-percentage shooters such as Auston Matthews.

Once out of the zone, transition will be essential as controlled zone entries allow the Canadiens to create scoring chances off the rush. This is another aspect where added mobility on the blue line will pay off, as the NHL as a whole is transitioning to more mobile, puck-moving defensemen who become a fourth attacker as part of an offensive strategy.

Part of the overall strategy will be to match up against the Matthews line — it is almost certain that Ducharme will rely on the proven line of Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher to play a shutdown role. Among lines with over 200 minutes played together, the line led the NHL in expected goals for (xGF%) with 70.8 percent — the second-best line in the NHL was the Matthews line. It will be the main matchup in this series.

Nick Suzuki will undoubtedly be matched up against John Tavares. On the wings for the Canadiens, it will be important to provide him with shooters and speed. Tyler Toffoli led the team in scoring and has good chemistry with Suzuki; adding Josh Anderson gives this line speed. A major aspect to the line will be Anderson’s physical play. The last time he was healthy in the playoffs was the year the Columbus Blue Jackets swept the Tampa Bay Lightning. In that series, his speed and physical play were a major factor in Columbus taking the series in a four-game sweep. They’ll need that Anderson in this series, as well.

Fortune favors the bold, and this is a line where his ability to take a risk could make a difference in this series, and could remove the interim tag for Ducharme if it pays off. The expectation is that Ducharme will rely on veteran center Eric Staal; however, dressing Jesperi Kotkaniemi instead may prove to be the better choice. While it is an issue that the young center hasn’t been scoring, he has played better defensively, providing backchecks to cut off time and space, finishing checks and forechecking consistently, forcing defenders to rush plays. It would be a risk, but with a similar situation to last year’s bubble with some rest prior to the playoffs starting, he has time to recover and refocus prior to Game 1.

On this third line, Ducharme can take advantage of Kotkaniemi’s playmaking skills by making a bold choice and dressing rookie winger Cole Caufield. In limited ice time, the young sniper scored four goals (including two game-winning goals) in 10 games, which is a 30-goal pace over a full season. If he can continue, that depth scoring could make a difference. Adding a veteran to the line would be beneficial defensively as well. Perhaps Corey Perry or Joel Armia would fit, but it will be a decision that affects the power play, as Perry is regularly used as a net-front presence.

Cole Caufield Montreal Canadiens
Cole Caufield, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The fourth line is another area where a bold decision should be made. In the last two games of the regular season, fans watched Artturi Lehkonen, Jake Evans and Paul Byron put up eight points and play an efficient matchup role with Connor McDavid’s line. The chemistry is there — the line can produce offence and play defence. If it were to be used, that would mean the veteran center, Staal, would start the playoffs in the press box. In a series that will feature speed, that may be the bold decision needed to compete.  

The Identity

This edition of the Canadiens have shown they can score when they are able to establish their transition game, like fans saw at the start of the season. The team can also play a very physical style, especially with a blue line that features Weber, Alexander Romanov, Joel Edmundson, Ben Chiarot and even Jeff Petry, who is able to play a heavy game when required. The Habs led the NHL this season in hits per game at 28.3.

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To have success, the Canadiens must tap into that identity, starting from the net out. They’ll need to physically punish any Toronto skater by finishing checks, by grinding out battles in front of the net and along the boards. This is primordial as they need to use this advantage to weaken and tire out the favored Maple Leafs led by Matthews.

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews takes part in the Leafs & Legends Charity Golf Classic, September 11, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Eduardo Lima)

If they can establish physical dominance, they can take control of the game by using the added puck possession this will provide to play their transition game. In the regular season, that physical game helped them to gain possession often, as they finished second in the NHL with a Corsi for of 54.5 percent. While possession is a key aspect in scoring, the Canadiens haven’t had the skilled shooters in their lineup play consistently, with the exception of Toffoli. The team hopes some rest prior to the playoffs will help alleviate this.

Once in the offensive zone, that physicality must continue. Players like Anderson and Gallagher will play a huge role in winning the physical battles and setting an example for the others to follow. If they can do this, then the Canadiens could generate a large number of shots on net. By shooting in quantity, they may generate enough quality chances to score enough to support their main weapon in the playoffs, Carey Price.

This series vs. a Toronto lineup that has had media in that city touting them as a Stanley Cup contender for several seasons will be desperate to finally win a playoff series for the first time since the introduction of the salary cap. The Canadiens, led by Price in net, will need to play their best hockey of the season. They must tap into their team identity and force their opponent to play into their strengths, otherwise this will be a short playoff run for Montreal and their fans.

Charts courtesy of Jason Paul at WaveIntel.com


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