Monday, May 5, 2014

Shuffle Demons

Two things we've learned about the Boston Bruins so far in these playoffs are: 1) they can be intensely relentless for short periods of time, which nevertheless are long enough to force their opponent back, gasping, as they enforce their will and, 2) they have absolute confidence in launching third-period comebacks because they've done it so often and it almost always works.

To stop the Bruins, then, the Canadiens have to counter that strategy by not only weathering the onslaught when Boston decides to launch it, but by countering it and thereby denting the confidence that fuels the pressure. We saw the Bruins through more than half the third in Game Two look disheartened and confused to be at risk of going to Montreal down 0-2. One soft goal later, the confidence was back, they turned on their relentless pressure and the Canadiens folded.

The biggest problem the Habs had during that 8-minute third-period sequence was their inability to move the puck out of their zone quickly and accurately while the Bruins were bearing down. The most common clearing play was a rushed backhand flip up the boards, which was very often intercepted by the Bruins wingers and returned immediately toward Carey Price. A lot of the difficulty in that situation lay with the defence.

People are ranting about Francis Bouillon and his deflection past Price, as well as his general sub-par play in some pressure situations. However, Bouillon was only part of the issue. For all his lack of size, age and unimaginative decision-making, he did his best. What's not so often mentioned, but equally difficult to watch are the problems Alexei Emelin has playing the right side. Perhaps it's the result of his knee surgery, but when Emelin makes his right-hand pivot to cut off a guy coming around him on the outside, he struggles mightily to turn quickly. Every coaching staff has noted this, and you very often see teams dump the puck in on Emelin's side, forcing him to make that pivot and lose his man as his turn seems to lock him up and he awkwardly wheels around, stick flailing. He needs to play on the left side to be at his most effective. Unfortunately, the Habs only have two right-handed D-men to play with him. P.K.Subban is quite at home with Josh Gorges, and that pair is logging big minutes. So, perhaps it's worth trying Emelin with Mike Weaver on the third pair. With home ice advantage, Emelin could then play his natural side and add some size and muscle to Weaver's smarts, while enjoying facing easier opposition.

That would leave Andrei Markov without a partner. Of the remaining possibilities, which include Bouillon, Douglas Murray, Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu, the latter makes the most sense. It would still mean Markov's partner would be playing his off-side, but Beaulieu is a fantastic skater and could compensate better than Emelin has been doing. Beaulieu is also a big guy with a bit of grit to his game, and offers the bonus possibility of strengthening the second PP unit while being a generally strong puck-mover. Beaulieu has no playoff experience, but the kid is 21 and has to get it sometime, and who better to take him for his first post-season spin than The General?

In the cases of Tinordi, and especially Murray, adding size on defence is something of an illusion. Giving the Bruins bigger targets to hit isn't the answer. Getting the puck out as quickly and accurately as possible is. The Bs have been scoring from open looks in the high slot, not from crashing the crease where size on defence can help. Aside from blocking those high-percentage shots or risking penalties by interfering with Boston skaters, there's not much a defenceman can do when the Bruins possess the puck deep in the offensive zone for long stretches, no matter how big he is. On the other hand, adding a quick, mobile puck-mover who also has size means the puck is heading the other way before the Bruins can get set up and turn up the cycle and the pressure. Tinordi can do it, but Beaulieu is more offensively-minded and quicker.

The key to neutering the Bruins' go-to game plan lies in the defence. Moving the puck faster and more accurately, and setting each defenceman up to succeed by playing to his strengths is what needs to happen. The biggest issue here is whether Michel Therrien will trust an untried rookie (even one who's shown he can play at the NHL level with confidence) to answer some of the questions presented by the Boston approach. Judging by the decisions he's made to date, it's unlikely he'd do that. Which is too bad, because we know what we've learned from the Bruins. Now we need the Habs to be smart enough to turn those lessons around.


Steve said...

We can only hope MT reads you JT!

Ian said...

When it comes to creative and modern thinking, MT dances to the beat of his old, archaic drum.

Bruce G. said...

I think you are right on J.T. but do not think MT will do what you are suggesting. My question is: if you can see the situation with Emelin, why can't a professional coaching staff?