Sunday, May 9, 2010

The D-Bone's Connected to the O-Bone

Okay, everybody, we know the Habs are having a terrible time scoring. We know if they push hard, they can take advantage of Fleury and put up more than one goal a game. So why aren't they doing it? A big part of it is defence.

In an ideal world, at least one in which Jacques the Knife is king, the defenceman picks up the puck in his end, smartly passes it up to the nearest open forward who's already in motion, breaking up ice with his linemates. They cross the blueline skating hard, the puck carrier either passes off and heads to the net for a screen or a rebound or he cuts in and shoots while his linemates go to the net.

In the Habs real world, in which Jacques the Knife has to keep cementing his hair in place to quell the urge to tear it out by the roots, a guy like O'Byrne or Gill (God love his size XXXL shot-blocking shin pads, but he's not a great puck handler) will grab the puck in the corner, see the forechecker heading for him and hurriedly scoop it around the boards where it may or may not be picked up by Josh Gorges. If Gorges gets it, he'll chip it to centre, where it may or may not end up on the stick of a Canadien. If a Hab gets it, there may be o-zone penetration and possibly a shot on goal. If Gorges doesn't get it in his own zone, it ends up tied up on the boards while the wingers fight for possession. When it comes out, if the Habs have possession, they'll carry it to centre and dump it because it's time for a shift change. This happens about nineteen hundred times a game, and it means Gomez' line or Plekanec's ends up spending a great deal of ice time simply struggling to gain possession of the puck.

See the difference when Markov or Subban have the puck? Easy, smart outlet passes to moving forwards that lead to scoring chances happen much more often. The Habs make a lot of giveaways, and a great many of those come from the defencemen who are prone to just throwing the puck out of trouble without much thought about what happens to it afterwards. Unfortunately for the forwards, it's tough to build a cohesive attack when the primary mindset of the guys who are supposed to start the rush is "get rid of it!" They're doing a good job of getting the puck out of trouble, but that doesn't lead to much in the way of strategic offence.

The defencemen are an integral part of the offence, and this is where guys like Markov and Spacek are most missed. They're able to play in their own end, but they also think about where the puck needs to go once they get control of it. Gill, O'Byrne and Hamrlik manage to do it sometimes, but not often enough. That's why it's hard to get dangerous rushes started in the Habs end. Most of the Canadiens' chances come from winning o-zone faceoffs and holding the puck in for a shot or two.

There are a lot of other issues with the scoring too, first among them that nobody but Gionta seems to spend much time in the opposition goal crease. The Habs also don't win enough faceoffs and spend too much time trying to gain possession after losing the draw. Short shifts mean there's little time to accomplish much before the players are off again. And focussing on hermetically sealing their own zone ensures the team has to skate a LOT and wears down late in the third.

There's definitely a give and take here. You want the Habs to play tight D, but you want them to be able to transition to offence quickly as well. Unfortunately, the people playing on the Montreal blueline don't all have that skill, and the ones that do are mostly injured. Thus, one goal per game is becoming the norm.

In Game Six, in which it's do or die time (once again) for the Canadiens, the forwards will have to work harder to compensate for the things the D can't do. More Habs need to go to the net and bug Fleury and more of them need to make smart passes on the rush once the D does get it up and out of the Canadiens zone. The defencemen have enough to do to protect Halak from getting murdered. The forwards can't expect them to do it all, and need to improve their execution once they finally do get the puck.

This may all be moot tomorrow night if Spacek plays and somehow manages to find his timing after not skating at game speed for three weeks. He's able to make a good forward pass when he's on. His presence will help. Get some good passes from the defence and the offence will move along too. We'll see if it makes a difference tomorrow.


NorCalVol said...

Spot on.
It's frustrating to watch, but you've articulated the nature of the frustration.
Opportunistic goals may be the only way out of this little hole we find ourselves in. And, you can count on those for only so long - ephemeral.
But all we might need are a couple.
Keep hope alive.

Anonymous said...

My husband, who knows zippo about hockey but has been glued to the TV ever since January (I have ultimatums)says the same thing. "We don't have good control of the puck", he echoed last night.

I agree.

Can you imagine what we could accomplish if we had?

I was daydreaming today about this: healthy guys like Markov, Gill, Mara, O'Byrne, Gorges, Spacek all playing on the same night. Imagine that. Maybe they'll surprise us tomorrow night? A girl can dream, no?

Let's go miracle team! Give us one for the ditch!

MC said...

A very good analysis. Let's hope desparation will make the offensive-minded D like Bergeron, Hamrlik, and Subban to play more aggressively. Bergeron gets in trouble when he thinks. When he reacts and moves the puck quickly he is much better.

Doesn't it make you wonder what if Markov and Spacek had been healthly? The Habs have been close without them.

If Spacek has the inner ear problem causing vertigo that is rumoured, I will be very surprised to see him. A friend of mine had it and he could not even drive a car for almost a year.

Patrick said...

Wow, J.T., you're surpassing yourself. Brilliant reflexion on Habs problems, better than a lot of fast-food junk "sport-journalism" that gets carried around ESPN, TSN or RDS.

Wow, thanks!

I was making similar reflexions recently. It's obvious that there's no decent offense without a good moving defense, something we now lack of because of injuries.

Thanks for putting it in cristal clear words..! :D

Anonymous said...

Great analysis of the Habs' puck-moving problems. Every time they get the puck out of our zone after a struggle along the boards, I'm thinking, "OK, now do something with it," only to see them dump it in and skate off. It's so frustrating, and you have explained exactly what the problem is. Without good puck-moving defensemen, we spend two-thirds of the game in our own zone, the other third trying to create something off faceoffs or puck battles along the boards in the attacking zone. This means we get few chances, and, if the goaltender is on, even fewer second chances. With a healthy Markov and Spacek, we could be ahead in this series.

CheGordito said...

As this series has progressed, they've lost their poise on defence. Especially in the last game, the defense wasn't passing back and forth to each other. Bergeron in particular was making bone-headed plays and losing the puck rather than passing it to his defensive partner to receive it back. Those quick 1-2's are very effective if your forwards aren't too far away - lots of options open up. And it's how they need to play - defensively responsibly, but smart, to get through the Penguins.

pierre said...

Our opponents o'zone time have been high against us in both series but our commitment to play good D as a unit of 5 + 1g has proved to be effective even when put against an undisputed scoring champ like Washington..... according to some of their fans MTL was the matched-up to fear on their way to the Cup and fell confident that their team would cruze trought the Penguins just as they did during the regular season without loosing a single game against them.

I never fantaisised about our chances in making it all the way to the Cup final in this year playoffs even thought we won a 7 game series against the best team in the NHL and that we were the better team for having done so,.. " the best team won net and square " was the Capital's owner's comment after the series..... indeed... but I only realised it the day we won a second time on the 4th game of our present series..... only at that moment I realised how EVERYTHING would have been possible for us in these playoffs had we not lost Markov on the way.