On Tuesday, the Montreal Canadiens lost their third straight game to the Toronto Maple Leafs, pushing them to the brink of playoff elimination. The Maple Leafs have carried much of the momentum since Game 2 and have looked like the superior team through four games.
As the Canadiens approach a potentially season-ending Game 5, here are just a few of the takeaways from Game 4 and some thoughts on where the team clearly needs to improve moving into the next game. That said, the takeaways and potential solutions are not difficult to imagine. Ultimately, Game 5 will come down to desperation and execution on the offensive side of the puck.
3. Slow Starts Need to Change
The start of Game 4 for the Canadiens was precarious. Although they emerged unscathed on the scoreboard in the opening minutes, they gave up several odd-man rushes, including a breakaway to Jason Spezza and a two-on-one where Jesperi Kotkaniemi was forced to take a penalty. Immediately it felt as though they were chasing the Maple Leafs rather than dictating the pace themselves. In a must-win, the momentum seemed to favor a more confident Maple Leafs’ squad. This problem would continue to cost the team throughout Game 4 as Toronto’s first two goals came from odd-man rushes.
Starting better insinuates scoring the first goal of the game. This is a must for Game 5. Of course, opening the scoring is always the desired result. Season after season, year after year, the team that scores the first goal is given a 67 percent probability of winning the game. In Game 4, the Canadiens were unable to do so. William Nylander, who has been the Maple Leafs’ biggest offensive threat in the series, opened the scoring in the second period for the second straight game. Playing from behind is a problem for the Canadiens who have continued to be offensively challenged, scoring only four goals in four games.
However, considering how well Carey Price has played, a lead, any lead at all, could go a long way in giving the team a fighting chance at extending the series. Moreover, playing with some kind of lead could do wonders for the Canadiens’ confidence levels, especially if players such as Tyler Toffoli or Brendan Gallagher can break their goalless streaks. So how do they score the first goal? It really comes back to the basics.
2. Support the Puck Carrier/Speed Through the Middle
In Game 4, and the series as a whole, the Canadiens have had problems moving out of their own end with any coherency. The Maple Leafs’ forecheck deserves some credit, but there have also been a lot of unforced errors, along with passes to players standing still in the neutral zone. The lack of passing options and puck support stifled breakouts and ultimately offensive momentum in Game 4. If a pass did connect up ice, the Canadiens forwards were usually on their own and were forced to dump the puck in with little support. The Maple Leafs were able to outnumber the forecheckers and quickly break out of their zone.
When the Canadiens have been most successful with their breakouts in the series (Game 3, period three), they generated far more speed through the middle of the ice. It was effective at backing the Maple Leafs off their defensive blueline.
In Game 5, the template will have to be to rely on shorter, tighter passes while moving up ice. In these situations, with the Canadiens in tighter formations, if they turn the puck over, or if they are still forced to dump the puck in, at least they can put themselves in positions to outnumber the Maple Leafs and get the puck back. This is essentially the same blueprint the Maple Leafs have used, and it works. If they can support each other better on the ice, it should go a long way in creating more offensive chances.
1.Get to the Net and Make Campbell’s Life More Difficult
The Canadiens will need to remind themselves of all the cliches at this point if they are going to extend the series to a Game 6. That includes finding ways to get to the net more often to make Jack Campbell’s life more difficult. The Maple Leaf goaltender has been solid but was rarely called upon in Game 4 to make second or third saves. Much of the Canadiens offensive zone time was spent along the walls.
Hockey is a game where the same actions usually generate the same results. For example, the Maple Leafs have created far more scoring opportunities around the Montreal net area, and as a result, have scored more goals. The analytic website, Natural Stat Trick, provided a heat map of scoring opportunities in Game 4. Just look at where the Maple Leafs scored their goals from. The Canadiens need to find a way to do the same. In many ways, this comes down to effort and will rather than strategy. I would expect to see a lot more from Gallagher and Corey Perry around the net in Game 5.
As I stated in the beginning, these solutions are not exactly mind-blowing in their originality, but the truth is, these are the things that good teams do to win. If the Canadiens want to bring the series back to the Bell Centre for Game 6 (a game with fans), they will have to get a lead and continue to attack the Maple Leafs’ net.
Hello there, folks! My name is Stephen Michaud. Like so many in Canada, I grew up playing the game of hockey from a young age. My passion for playing spawned a yearning for following the NHL and other leagues around the world. Here at The Hockey Writers I have been tasked with covering the Montreal Canadiens, which I hope to do in a detailed and honest fashion.