Two Devils forwards below the goal line in the offensive zone.
That’s what the Montreal Canadiens are going to see in nearly every frame of the game tape when they review how New Jersey jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the first 40 minutes of what turned out to be a 5-2 loss on Wednesday.
These aren’t Jacques Lemaire’s Devils, who turned themselves into perennial Stanley Cup contenders in the 1990s by feasting on the counter-attack after bottling the neutral zone with all five of their players. No, John Hynes’ Devils play as aggressive of a game as the Canadiens have faced so far this season.
New Jersey came into Wednesday’s game seven points out of a playoff spot, mostly due to a porous 2-8 start on the road, but they improved to an NHL-leading 7-1-2 at home with the win over the Canadiens.
If New Jersey can bottle that formula, they’re going to be a bear to contend with from here to the end of the season.
As for the Canadiens, there’s much to learn from the loss that took them to 11-7-4 on their season.
About that game-tape…
If the Canadiens are smart, they won’t burn it.
Other opponents are going to want to watch what the Devils did to exploit Montreal’s issues in its own end. And there are many teachable moments in there for the Canadiens to dissect so they can counteract that strategy in the future.
The coaching staff has preached moving the puck fast since training camp opened in September. They wanted to eliminate the passing between defencemen and move the puck up the ice—by any means necessary—in order to limit the amount of time spent in the defensive end.
It’s going to be easy for Claude Julien and co. to reinforce the importance of executing that strategy when they show the team video from Wednesday’s game.
On too many occasions in the opening 40 minutes, the Canadiens were caught reversing course and moving the puck sideways and backwards because the defencemen were looking to make clean outlet passes.
But you don’t have time to look for passes when two forecheckers are breathing down your neck at every turn. And you can’t make them on instinct when the puck support from the forwards isn’t strong enough.
The hesitation to move the puck — the Canadiens made far too many soft plays up the boards in order to avoid icing calls — led to New Jersey’s first two goals.
Fans don’t like seeing it, but handling a forecheck like New Jersey’s boils down to making hard plays up the boards and off the glass or flipping pucks out instead of angling for clean passes you don’t have time to look for. Employing that strategy when the pass isn’t there allows you to win the numbers game in the neutral zone, even if you have to win races and chase down loose pucks.
Sure the Devils sat back a bit in the third period, but the Canadiens got back to the way they usually play from their goal-line out and ended up generating their best chances of the game as a result.
Lesson No. 2: Take away the shooting lanes
The Devils took away the puck seven times from the Canadiens in the first period and forced many more than two giveaways the Canadiens were credited for on the stat sheet.
They cycled down low and filtered the puck back to the point and crashed the net. That’s how Palmieri’s goal developed 6:26 into the game.
Here’s the thing about that play: Montreal’s Tomas Tatar was in good enough position to force Andy Greene to pivot and find a better shooting angle from the point, but he didn’t take away the shooting lane when all was said and done.
This was a theme throughout the night — with the Canadiens’ wingers not doing enough in that regard. The team blocked 11 shots, but Brendan Gallagher was Montreal’s only winger to register a block in the game.
That’s simply not good enough.
Defensive-zone coverage was a mess
It was Gallagher who allowed Egor Yakovlev to sneak behind him and setup the winning goal, which was a tic-tac-toe passing play finished by Hall at the 8:59 mark of the second period.
A minute and one second later, Max Domi, Andrew Shaw, Jonathan Drouin, Jeff Petry and Xavier Ouellet were the Canadiens who got all crossed up as Pavel Zacha found himself all alone in front of Carey Price and pushed a change-up into the net.
Zacha parted Montreal blue liners Ouellet and David Schlemko on a Devils power play to cruise in on a breakaway and score the goal that made it 5-1.
The Canadiens won’t need to review the tape to fix this issue. This boils down to working hard and trusting that everyone is going to do their individual job on a given play.
In truth, the Canadiens can do better in this regard, but defensive-zone coverage is going to be a problem even when Shea Weber finally makes his season-debut after missing Montreal’s first 22 games rehabbing from off-season knee surgery. Such is life with the defensive core the Canadiens have.
But it can be less of a problem if — when the struggle to move the puck up quick — they play better as a five-man unit.
It wasn’t all bad
In spite of how the Canadiens performed on their half of the ice, they still could have won this game with the chances they produced at the other end.
Drouin and Artturi Lehkonen each hit the crossbar. Kenny Agostino had a goal waved off that appeared as though it should have counted. And Gallagher and Tatar missed wide-open nets from just a foot away on separate occasions.
That they out-scored New Jersey in the third period is a positive to take into a huge divisional game against red-hot Buffalo Sabres on Friday.
Domi extends point streak to 11 games, Drouin scores his eighth goal
Those were positives, too.
Domi, who scored Montreal’s only goal of the third period, now has points in 19 of 22 games since being traded to the Canadiens from the Arizona Coyotes on June 15.
As for Drouin, who tied the game 1-1 just 24 seconds after Palmieri opened the scoring, he’s now five goals from his total one year ago.
And with 18 points in 22 games, Drouin is now on pace for 71 points. That’s a big step up from the 46 he recorded last season, and it’s much more in line with the kind of production the Canadiens expected when they traded defenceman Mikhail Sergachev to acquire him from the Tampa Bay Lightning two summers ago.