The Montreal Canadiens rattled off an all-important series-opening win Wednesday night against the Winnipeg Jets. This victory marked the team’s fourth straight going back to Game 5 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Since that must-win Game 5, the team’s play has reached a level of consistency rarely shown through their first 56 games. In fact, it is the first time all season the team has won four straight. Were the Canadiens perfect during this stretch? Absolutely not, but these four games were the most important of the season, highlighting the significance of the streak.
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There are many reasons for the current winning streak: timely goals, strong special teams, strong goaltending, and stifling defense. Arguably, these all stem from or are byproducts of strong focus and engagement when the puck drops. For fans watching professional athletes, there is an expectation that the players will naturally come ready to play for every single game. However, far too often this season, the Habs were slow out of the gate, even during key games (from ‘In the Habs’ Room: No Answers for Slow Start in 3-1 Loss to Calgary,’ Montreal Gazette, 14-05-21). This plagued the team all season long and was an integral part of their inconsistency; yet all of a sudden, things have changed, and the team’s confidence has increased.
Quick Starts Build Confidence
Starting a game quickly does not necessarily entail scoring an early goal, although that is certainly very helpful. In Game 5 against the Maple Leafs, for example, Joel Armia did score two early goals to give the Canadiens a huge early advantage. However, in Game 6, the team once again started very quickly but was unable to score until the third period. Still, the Canadiens established a pace more conducive to their style of play. In the first period of Game 6 against the Maple Leafs, the Canadiens controlled 60.53% of all shot attempts at five-on-five. Starting that way in an elimination game only built the team’s confidence and belief as the game went on, which even the old eye test confirmed. Ultimately, they won the game and the series on another strong start in Game 7.
Dominique Ducharme Deserves Some Credit
Some credit for the team’s quick starts should go to head coach Dominique Ducharme. The coach was heavily criticized for his playoff lineup decisions and lack of adjustments during the first four games of the Toronto series. However, since then (whether you like the decisions or not), each one of his decisions has paid off in spades. To give some examples, he inserted Jake Evans onto the Phillip Danault/Brendan Gallagher line, creating an effective shutdown trio, and he added Erik Gustafsson on the back end to help with the power play, which has scored key goals over the winning stretch, including two in Game 6 and one in Game 7 against the Maple Leafs.
You might ask, what do these minor adjustments have to do with starting quickly? Well, they are not directly tied to fast starts but still, have some influence. To some extent, it has become clear that each player who has entered the lineup has fully accepted their role and position within the lineup, which tells me Ducharme has found a way to communicate effectively with each of his players. The communication from the top-down helps with readiness and preparation. Minor tweaks also do not disrupt the rhythm of the team as one cohesive unit but do change the dynamic from a defensive perspective for the Canadiens’ opponents. Just ask Maple Leafs’ coach Sheldon Keefe, who claimed the insertion of Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Cole Caufield into the lineup, totally changed the series dynamic.
In any case, there appears to be a trust among the Canadiens players and coaches that has allowed the team to play loose and start fast. If this continues, Ducharme may find that his job is more secure than most were predicting initially.
Game 1 Against the Jets and Beyond
In Game 1 against the Jets, the Canadiens came out with some jump, scoring two goals in the first 5:10 of the game. The significance of this start was not lost on the players. Corey Perry acknowledged in his post-game press conference that the Canadiens start was what impressed him most about the team’s effort, especially when facing the more rested Jets team. Perry’s line with Armia and Eric Staal was particularly strong in their offensive zone puck possession, where they frequently pinned the Jets defense for long periods of time in the early going of Game 1.
With the series shifting to Game 2, the same recipe will be needed for a Canadiens victory. The Jets will be without their number one centreman Mark Scheifele after he was dealt a four-game suspension for his charge on Jake Evans. Scheifele played upwards of 24 minutes in Game 1, expressing how important he is to the Jets. If the Canadiens can establish their style early, they may be able to plant some doubt in the minds of the remaining Jets players. In addition, the Jets will also be without top-pairing defenseman Dylan Demelo, who also missed all but 30 seconds of Game 1. The Canadiens need to attack the Jets early and test their depth. If they can do this, the likelihood that their win streak continues will be vastly increased.