Canadiens’ power play enjoys early returns, even as top unit labours

Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin on why the Bell Centre standing ovation was such a special moment for him, and why fans support means so much for him and his confidence.

BROSSARD, Que.— Six games played, and the Montreal Canadiens have registered power play goals in five of them.

Consider that a surprising — and welcome — development for a team that finished with the second-worst power play in the National Hockey League last season. A power play that operated at 13.2 per-cent efficiency and likely cost them a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It’s early, but the Canadiens are humming along at 23.8 per cent (5-for-21), which as of Thursday morning is 12th-best in the league. They came into the season looking for focus and cohesion. They felt their zone exits, zone entries and decisions with the puck through pre-season had afforded them reasons to be cautiously optimistic that they might be able to build momentum out of the gate. And now that they’ve clicked more than a few times since the puck dropped on Oct. 3, they feel they’ve established a template to follow.

All of that has allowed the Canadiens to take one giant step in the right direction with the man advantage.

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Not that they’re satisfied. All five of their goals have come on the second wave of the power play, which consists of Max Domi, Jeff Petry, Nick Suzuki, Tomas Tatar and Joel Armia. The top unit of Jonathan Drouin, Shea Weber, Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault and Jordan Weal all feel they’ve been close to breaking through, but they know there are some things for them to borrow from their teammates in order to start enjoying some success.

Canadiens coach Claude Julien believes the only difference is that one unit has capitalized on its chances.

“They’re spending time in there, they’ve got to score,” he said after Wednesday’s practice in response to a question about the other unit. “Shea’s had a lot of chance(s) at shooting the puck, I know that even Gallagher’s had some great chances from the slot. Hopefully they can score, but there’s some little decision makings that, again, they can get better than that. They’re certainly going to get some chances and hopefully they’ll wind up in the back of the net.”

There is a dilemma on that unit and it stems from an over-reliance on trying to set up Weber for his lethal one-timer.

It’s easy to look at that decision from the outside and simply say the strategy is too predictable. It’s even easier when you see how much the opposition is keyed in on Weber.

But, as Drouin noted Wednesday, when you have a weapon like Weber’s shot at your disposal, you have to figure out how to use it.

“It’s tough to free up that weapon,” said Drouin, a 24-year-old who’s scored 72 of his 200 NHL points on the power play. “Teams just hang around him and they wait for that pass to come. But I think, for us, when we’re going to be working it up top, we have to create some plays where they have to move away from Webby. That Webby play works but if we don’t do anything else to hit the middle or move that guy away from Webby, he won’t get the quality shots.”

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How does Drouin propose they do that?

“I think we’re stationary a bit,” he said. “It’s about more movement. You have to shoot, too. But you have to move the (penalty-killing) box around where we’re not just passing and passing around the outside. Guys have to move up and down the slot and push through the slot and that’s where you’re going to create some confusion and get some room for Webby. When we do that and create that confusion, that’s where Webby’s going to get better (one-timer) looks.”

It’s what the other unit has managed to do well, with Petry occupying the position that Weber has on unit No. 1.

As a result, both of Petry’s goals this season (and three of his four points) have come on the power play.

Domi said that has as much to do with what his unit is doing well as it does with the 31-year-old defenceman’s skill set.

“Petey has a huge influence on that part of the game,” Domi said on Wednesday. “He’s up there as one of the best skating defencemen in the league. I would put him out there against anyone. He can skate, and he’s got an absolute bomb (of a shot) too. We have some good chemistry together and he knows where I am and I know where he is and that chemistry is awesome. I think when he gets the puck over there on that half-wall and he rips it, it’s an absolute bomb and it goes in where you think it’s going to go. It’s consistent, too. And on the breakouts and break-ins, he’s just awesome.”

Domi has had his hand in those elements, too. Him, Petry, Drouin and Weal have done a good job transporting the puck up the ice and gaining the offensive zone in control of it.

And perhaps of equal, if not greater, significance: the decisions being made with the puck once the Canadiens enter the zone have been much better than they were a year ago — that stands for both units.

“We’ve been working on certain things since the beginning of camp and one of the biggest things is battling hard and retrieving pucks in the offensive zone,” Tatar said. “The other thing is, I think last year we really struggled to figure out who’s where and I think this year we just know our jobs better on the power-play breakouts and break-ins and we’re trying to fill the lanes fast and just trying to break out fast. And now, on the way in, we have options on all sides for the puck carrier. So you’re seeing more automatic decisions with the puck.”

At no point last season did anything appear automatic for the Canadiens on the power play, and they’re aware that they aren’t yet operating as well as they believe they can this year.

But they are encouraged by the early returns thus far, and they feel adjustments have been made strategy-wise in order to get more out of the personnel they have at their disposal.

“We don’t have (Steven) Stamkos and (Nikita) Kucherov blasting one-timers across from each other,” Tatar said. “The coaches have set things up for the guys we do have. The big key is that we have to be moving. We’re setting it up more down low and working it back up top, or we’re moving around up top and getting it down low. But everyone’s moving and it’s been working so far.”

The results are there for his unit. Now it’s time to see if the other one can break through in short order.

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