After a blistering offensive start to the season, scoring 44 goals in their first 10 games, the Montreal Canadiens have suddenly found themselves in a bit of a scoring slump. Now, in their last four games, they have put up six goals, including being shut out by Mike Smith and the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday night, a team not known for their stringent defensive play. The biggest concern is that over the last four games is the team did not even look particularly dangerous outside of a few solid shifts here and there. The smothering forechecking clinic the Habs put on display during the previous games has simply vanished.
Unfortunately for the Canadiens, heralded for their depth, the scoring slump appears to have struck all the forwards not named Josh Anderson. For example, to name a few, Jesperi Kotkaniemi (who I think has been good in most other areas) has one goal in 14 games, Jonathan Drouin has one goal in 14 games, Tomas Tatar has one in the last 12 games, Nick Suzuki has one goal in his last six games and Phillip Danault and Paul Byron have yet to score this season. Although it may start with one player ending a personal slump, it needs to end with several of the names above getting on the score sheet. So where have the Canadiens gone wrong the last four games? It begins with their breakout execution or lack thereof. The Canadiens need to retool their breakout.
The Canadiens Stunted Breakout
I believe the woes to the Habs’ offensive struggles begin here with the breakout. At the beginning of the season, their breakout was very quick and clean. The centers were coming low into the defensive zone to receive short passes in the middle of the ice when opponents took away the walls and wingers. When the wingers were available, the other forwards were supporting them along the wall for a quick exit with speed. See Josh Anderson’s second goal of the season as an example. The main point was that there was always an option for the defence to make a short and relatively safe pass.
In the last four games, these passes have not been available, and they’ve botched them when they are. There has been nothing clean about their breakout passes. Notably, all the defencemen have struggled, but Ben Chiarot, in particular, has been really fighting the puck. There have been dozens of passes into skates, passes to players standing entirely still in the neutral zone with no support, and just straight-up missed passes. In watching the games, many commentators have suggested they are ‘out of sync.’ And that is a fair assessment. If the Canadiens are not finding a way to breakout effectively, their speed advantage is essentially neutralized. Some credit should go to their opponents for their obstruction of the Canadiens breakout. That is also true, but it is clear the Habs are capable of much more.
Honestly, I think they need to just get back to basics on this front until there is some confidence and five-player cohesion evident. In too many cases, the wingers have been blowing the defensive zone a little early looking for the stretch pass.Other teams have easily picked these off and turned the puck back up ice in recent games, leading to more Habs defensive zone play. All three forwards need to get back into the defensive zone for the breakouts in order to maximize the support and emulate the effective breakouts we saw early in the season.
The Breakout Will Help the Forecheck
If the Canadiens can solve their breakout issues, their speed will be on full display, and they can get back to the stifling forecheck we saw early on this season. This is their greatest strength and is specifically where their four-line depth was ultimately supposed to make a difference. The team was built to wear teams down through constant pressure whether that be in the offensive zone or in the neutral zone.
Once they establish a forecheck, the team needs to find a way to capitalize on any opposition turnover. In the first 10 or so games of the season, they were able to do this, leading to high offensive output against teams like the Oilers and Vancouver Canucks. However, and maybe obviously, the effort level and attention to positional detail need to be there. In the last four games, but more noticeably in the two games against Ottawa, the Canadiens were simply outworked in all zones. They were slow to loose pucks and were unable to cause any meaningful turnovers, thus nullifying their ability to create scoring opportunities.
If the Canadiens do not retool or reset their breakout strategy shortly, it will not be surprising if their offensive slump continues. Unfortunately, the divisional standings are very tight, and there is little time to waste. Next on the docket is the Maple Leafs. The Canadiens will look to avenge a disappointing performance against their rival from earlier in the week. We will see if they have made any helpful adjustments.