As the Montreal Canadiens travel back to the Bell Centre for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, head coach Dominique Ducharme and assistant coach Luke Richardson will have to address issues on the defensive side of the puck. It’s safe to say the Canadiens have fallen behind 2-0 in the series largely due to avoidable blunders in their own zone.
The Canadiens’ offensive units looked like a different team in Game 2. They were getting shots on net (registering 43) and moving bodies in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy. It seemed only a matter of time before they took the lead (and kept it, as they had in every other series), but it didn’t go that way. Despite the noble efforts of the offense, their top-four defenseman got sucked into bad plays that turned out to be the difference-maker. With that in mind, I want to delve a bit into the good and bad of the Canadiens’ defensive corps throughout Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
The Canadiens have played a stellar defensive game throughout the postseason. They developed a successful system of shutting down the slot in front of Carey Price, forcing the opposition to the outside, and racking up a number of blocked shots (the top two pairings have tallied 128 combined blocked shots). It also helps that the top-four defenseman—Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Jeff Petry, and Joel Edmundson—are big guys who aren’t afraid to lay the body when necessary. And glimmers of this strategy has shined throughout the first two games against Tampa Bay.
It also seems that the Canadiens have deployed the neutral zone trap to great effect. By suffocating the opposition as they move through the neutral zone, it has created turnovers and offensive opportunities. This is a major reason why Montreal outshot Tampa Bay 13-6 in the first period and 16-7 in the middle frame of Game 2. Many naysayers have reduced Montreal’s defensive play to boring hockey, but that’s a good thing. As I mentioned earlier this week, you know the Canadiens’ defense is playing a solid game when they are keeping the other team’s offense off the highlight reel.
The break-out passes by the top-four defenseman have generally been solid. There were times when it seemed there was an over-urgency to get the puck through the neutral zone. This usually happened when Tampa Bay was trying to get in a line change. And while there’s something to be said for trying to get a jump on the opposition, it often leads to needless icings and turnovers. As a team that has struggled to win face-offs in the defensive end, doing anything to minimize icings would go a long way.
One of the more underrated dimensions to the Canadiens’ defensive play is their newfound love for carrying the puck into the offensive zone. This hasn’t always been the case, but during Game 2, there were a number of times when Petry, Chiarot, and Erik Gustaffson decided to take matters into their own hands. This not only allowed the forwards to get into position (in front of the net), it often created odd-man plays. And with Vasilevskiy in net for the Lightning, there is virtually no choice but to get bodies in front of him and hope one slips by.
For all the good things the Canadiens’ defensive corps have been able to do in the postseason, it hasn’t been good enough against Tampa Bay. There were several glaring mistakes made in the defensive end that, quite literally, cost them the game. Interim head coach Luke Richardson chimed in after Game 2, saying: “These guys [Tampa Bay] are very opportunistic and very lethal offensively if you do make mistakes in certain areas and obviously they showed that again tonight … You know, I don’t think hockey is a mistake-free game. It’s too fast, it’s not football where you stop and start and draw up plays. You have to play as best you can playing north and (allow) as little time in the offensive zone as you can against a team like Tampa, and I thought we did a better job tonight.” (From “‘We’re going to find our offence’: How the Canadiens can learn from what worked in Game 2 to break through in Game 3”, The Athletic, 7/1/21)
As far as the defensive corps making the game boring, Chiarot did everything but make the game boring for the Tampa Bay Lightning during Game 2. Though I’m sure many of you witnessed the buzzer-beater goal by Blake Coleman with 0.3 seconds left in the second period, it’s important to assess why it happened in the first place. While there’s a lot to be said for Coleman and his effort in scoring the goal, the play was possible because of a lazy defensive play by Chiarot.
Chiarot, instead of playing it safe, decided to attempt a poke-check on Barclay Goodrow in the neutral zone. This was almost certainly not the right play. If Chiarot was thinking neutral zone trap, he would have stayed back to keep Goodrow in front of him. Instead, the Lightning forward got past him, forcing Weber to slide over to prevent an open shot. Goodrow made a backhanded pass to Coleman and the rest is history.
The whole play can be chalked up to an aggressive and undisciplined defensive play. It was an overt departure from the defensive strategy that had worked so well for the club throughout the postseason. This kind of play may have worked against weaker competition, but it was not the play to make against the defending Stanley Cup champions in the dying seconds of a tied period.
The word many people have used to describe the goal is demoralizing. And I’d agree.
If only the chaos had stopped there. With less than five minutes remaining in the game, Edmundson carried the puck behind his own net and attempted a drop pass to Petry that ended up behind Price.
It was a questionable play by Edmundson, especially considering that he wasn’t under any heavy pressure. And that was the goal that sealed the game for the Lightning. It could be said that Petry should have been a little more alert, but it is what it is.
I’m not completely convinced that the Lightning earned a Game 2 victory. The majority of their goals were given to them by lazy plays made by the Montreal defense. It’s imperative that Ducharme and Richardson address these issues, ensuring that they don’t continue to happen as the series goes to Montreal. If the Canadiens can be as offensively explosive as they were in Game 2, there’s a good chance they can pick up a victory in Game 3. But there’s no room for undisciplined play in their own zone. They have to get back to what has worked for them: clog up the neutral zone and create offensive momentum as a result.
As with many young kids who grow up in the Midwest, CG played a lot of hockey. His love and appreciation for the game is why he’s here, writing for The Hockey Writers, covering his two favorite teams: Montreal Canadiens and San Jose Sharks. But he writes other things, too, including a debut novel that is set to come out in July of 2021. You can find him on Twitter @TheLastSisyphus.