It is Monday morning in the frozen city of Montreal. After a week of decent (for January) weather, it has been colder the last few days, in this city, and not just because of the temperature. After two back-to-back 4 point games this weekend, that Habs are no better in the standings. Two games, two losses, two bad efforts - the second worse than the 1st - and your beloved Habs, who looked like they might be turning a corner, are back at .500 - 50GP 23 Wins, 23 Losses, 4 OTL. Even the most optimistic Habs fan out there - and I tend to be one of them - has to see that they are on pace to miss the playoffs. With 50 points in 50 games, they are on pace for 82 points – about 12 short of what is needed to qualify for the post-season. The Habs look like a team who are playing an outdated system and don’t have the horses to get it done. As such, they will likely continue to battle for the 8th spot up until the last few games of the season because they are not good enough to do much more.
So that begs that question of why and what is wrong with this team? From watching the first 50 games or so, a few things have become apparent. Firstly, Jacques Martin's coaching style, while allowing the Habs to get through the first 30+ games without Markov, is simply too passive to be a winner in the post-lockout NHL. Martin's style is to match lines 100% of the time and to play what is called a passive-resistance style of hockey. The passive-resistance style means that your team sits back and lets the other team come at them. By playing the trapping 1-2-2 system, Montreal always has four men between the defensive blueline (2) and the offensive blue line (2), with one forechecker (1). This is a system that allows the opposition to gain the neutral zone but then, in theory, they run into a wall of players and there is no room to maneuver so the opposition has to dump the puck in behind the Habs defenders. Here is a link to the Wikipedia explanation of the Neutral Zone Trap:
Martin’s system then continues by having the Habs players come back down low - below the defensive faceoff circle - where there should be a short quick pass from defenseman to forward to breakout of the zone and down the ice.
This is a quick turnaround, puck possession game where you spend little time in your own zone, keep the opposition at bay in the neutral zone - getting shots from the outside and NOT the slot - and get the puck up and out of your zone to go on the offensive. The problems with this system, in the post-lockout NHL, are numerous especially considering the makeup of the players on the Habs. Firstly, this system worked MUCH better in the pre-lockout NHL where there were no two line passes allowed. In those days, teams could not stretch out your neutral-zone trap, as they HAD to cross the center line before making a pass. Back then, the two defenders and two back-checking forwards could quickly close any gaps and squeeze the offensive player to the outside, taking away their time and space. The result would be an inevitable dump in, which the defending players would quickly grab - also helped by all the pre-lockout clutching and grabbing allowing defending players to slow down the opposition, giving their defenseman more time to get the puck - in order to turn the play from defense to offense.
In today's NHL, however, this system is not as effective. 'Taking out' the red-line/allowing the two-line pass means that opposing teams can stretch a player out - past the two Habs forwards at the offensive blueline all the way to the Habs blueline - for a long pass. This alleviates any potential pressure on the opposition to carry the puck through the neutral - a task that is made very difficult by a 1-2-2 trap system with no two-line passes allowed. Also, given that the Habs are not a physical team and have some slow defensemen on their team (Gill, Mara), they are not always able to be first on the puck and often lose battles in the defensive zone. When the opposition does dump the puck in, they usually have an attacker who is approaching at the Habs blueline, with speed. Dumping the puck into Hal Gill's corner means that he now has to turn and skate back for it. The fast attackers often get to the puck quicker than him, or Mara, and gain offensive zone possession. This completely nullifies Jacques Martin's system.
Now that the puck is in the Habs zone, and the opposition is on offense, the Habs smaller forwards - and for a large part defensemen - struggle to out muscle the opposition and win back possession. These lost battles lead to defensive zone break downs, shots on nets, scoring chances against and even player injuries. As a result, the Habs are usually outshot by the opposition and have been hit with a ton of injuries this year. Mara, Gill, Spacek, Hamrlik, Markov, AK46, SK74, D'Agostini, O'Byrne, etc. The vast majority of injuries have been to our defensemen. Losing battles down low and playing too much defense means that the Habs players are expending too much effort to get the puck back. The forwards are playing too much defense and the defensemen are being hit with too many punishing hits. This leads to late game fatigue and defensive breakdowns resulting in scoring chances and goals against, too many shots on net against, injuries and ultimately losses.
Since the Habs do have some skill and speed on their team, they can sometimes prevail, get to the pucks first, go on the quick counter-attack, score goals and win games. That, plus the often spectacular play of their goaltenders and their outstanding special teams is the only way this edition of the Habs wins any games. It is as simple as that. The Habs can't get the puck out of their zone and are too small to grind it out in the corners, so the opposition gets too many shots - a lot from the outside as the Martin's system also stresses protecting the front of the net at the expense of shots from the outside - the Habs goaltenders are forced to make too many saves and the special teams must
be successful or the Habs will lose the game. That has become their formula for winning. Scintillating goaltending and special teams makes for low scoring wins. The Habs simply do not score much 5 on 5, and this is why they are a .500 hockey team. If the goaltending is not perfect and if the special teams are not clicking the Habs lose games.
Jacques Martin's obsession with matching lines, his insistence on passive-resistance hockey, the Habs lack of defensive mobility and lack of overall size and grit, the allowance of two-line passes and the disappearance of clutching and grabbing mean that the Canadiens are playing an antiquated style of hockey. In addition, it means that they are always backing up on the ice and allowing the opposition to advance. This is not good and the results, so far, are hit and miss, hence the .500 record.
With players such as Cammalleri, Plekanec, Gionta, Gomez, Andrei Kostitsyn and others, the Habs actually have a lot of skill and speed in their lineup. If they focused more on attacking rather than sitting back, they might have more wins to show for it. Perhaps not enough to be an elite team in the league, but they would likely be higher in the standings than they are now.
Over the weekend Montreal played and lost to Ottawa and the NY Rangers - 4 points that they desperately needed in the standings. In both games, they came out strong but fell apart/asleep in the latter half of the game. Since their goaltending was below par and they were unable to score goals with the man advantage and shutdown the opposition on the PK, they ended up losing. The Habs were simply ground down by the opposition and became slow and tired by the second and third periods. Keep that in mind and watch the Habs system, going forward, and you'll see exactly what I am talking about.
Sadly, there is nothing to indicate that either Martin's style or the team 's composition will change any time soon, which means that the Habs will likely continue to win 1, lose 1 for the rest of the season. Unless there is a coaching or personnel change, the Habs seem destined to finish with around 82 - 90 points and out of the playoffs. Sad, but true.
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