MONTREAL — At this point the strategy is as clear as a cloudless sky, and it’s obviously the wrong one.
But one more time, for anyone who doesn’t know what the Montreal Canadiens are trying to do when the game gets to overtime and they have to switch from playing five-on-five to playing three-on-three: The plan Dominique Ducharme drew up when he took over as head coach on Feb. 24 from Claude Julien, who initially coached the Canadiens to zero goals in four overtime periods, has been to start the extra frame with his best faceoff man, his fastest forward and his best defenceman so his team can win possession of the puck, tire out the three opposition players on the ice by maintaining it and execute a line change while forcing those three opposition players to remain in place. It’s to hold, and hold and hold some more until you can pounce with three forwards on the next shift and get after it.
And while the principle behind it is perfectly reasonable, you have to be some sort of masochist to continue to let it guide your strategy when it’s led you to go another four games in a row without scoring. You have to be downright stubborn to go to it two nights after fighting back from a 3-1 third-period deficit, only to lose to the Winnipeg Jets on the first shift of overtime—especially after saying that overtime had become somewhat of a mental block for your team, like Ducharme did after that painful loss.
But after the Canadiens once again stuck their finger down their throat through the first two periods of Friday’s game, and after they rallied to erase a one-goal deficit in the final minute of the third period, they once again puked all over themselves in overtime and lost 3-2 to the Vancouver Canucks at the Bell Centre.
Before J.T. Miller weaved through Tomas Tatar and Nick Suzuki—players you’d like to see start the overtime period instead of hopping on the ice for the third shift of it—and buried the game, Josh Anderson, who has a very respectable 11 goals on the season, stormed in on a breakaway and shot the puck over Thatcher Demko’s glove and the upper portion of the net.
“Honestly at one point, it is mental,” said Ducharme, echoing his comments from Thursday’s loss. “But what we need is to bury one and get that over with. We do that tonight, probably everyone’s talking about what a character team we are in coming back…”
If Anderson had scored, we’d probably be talking about how his teammate, Jonathan Drouin, got away with interference that allowed Anderson to break away without anyone on his tail.
But we digress…
This loss happened before all of that. It happened before Miller beat goaltender Jake Allen, who was helpless on the play. It happened when Ducharme put Phillip Danault (two goals) and Paul Byron (two goals) on the ice to start overtime while Tyler Toffoli (18 goals) sat on the bench likely covering his eyes.
Even if Ducharme said it didn’t.
“You gotta look at everyone’s strength and I think our offensive guys are smart, good hands and so on; they don’t beat guys with pure speed,” he said. “They build things together. Do I want Toffoli, Drouin and Anderson starting and not having the puck and having to defend and waste energy there before they finally get the puck and they need to change? I thought everything was fine, and we get the breakaway, and from there it’s overtime and we got beat on the next play. So I don’t think it comes from the way we started.”
In fairness, Danault is Montreal’s best faceoff man, and even if he lost the draw for the third consecutive overtime, the Canadiens immediately recovered the puck and were actually credited with the faceoff win on the scoresheet. Danault, Byron and Jeff Petry, who’s indisputably a good choice for three-on-three, even did their job in keeping the puck (they lost it once by their net, but got it back immediately).
But the idea of spending the first 40 seconds merely trying to possess the puck instead of trying to score a goal with it is at the root of the “mental” issue the Canadiens have there.
And even though Danault is unequivocally Montreal’s best faceoff man, he’s not their only one.
Suzuki pulled back 10 of 16 faceoffs in the game, including two in the final minute before scoring the game-tying goal. It was a confidence-inspiring shift for him after a game-long struggle—despite some scoring chances he had to feel good about, that goal provided the adrenaline spike no scoring chance could’ve before the horror of getting danced around on the game-winner overtook his thoughts for the rest of the night.
Ducharme explained he didn’t tap Suzuki for that first draw because the second period and overtime faceoffs favour a lefty, with the official lining up in the way of a right-hander being able to pull the puck back on his strong side.
Fine! We’ll accept that.
But even if this was far from a good game for Jesperi Kotkaniemi, he’s a lefty who won 71 per cent of his faceoffs before watching the entire 2:01 of overtime from the bench (or was he covering his eyes, too?). He also has the possession skills to play keep away and at least has the playmaking skills to take advantage of a speedy forward like Anderson (who moves almost as fast as Byron) and Petry (who also has 11 goals).
Ducharme was right when he said we’d be talking about the character of his team and its first overtime win of the season had Anderson buried that breakaway, even if we would’ve spared a couple hundred words for the way his team played so poorly for a second game in a row through the first 40 minutes.
He was right about this, too, with the Canadiens having failed through eight overtimes before starting Friday’s extra period:
“Our guys, for sure they think about (the overtime struggle) when the time comes (to bury a chance),” he said. “And a guy like Andy going on a breakaway, he’s probably putting more pressure on himself thinking, ‘I’m going to end it this time,’ and it happens he missed it.”
Anderson’s probably also thinking that the team set out and executed on its strategy to create this one perfect opportunity and if he misses it, he’ll be the reason they fall to 0-9 after three periods of play.
But maybe Anderson doesn’t need to think about any of that if he steps on the ice at the start of it, lines up with two of the team’s other top scorers and is told nothing more than to go out and win the game.
“We’re always playing to win, and the guys know that,” insisted Ducharme. “I don’t need to send them a message. They know that.”
But the strategy is ‘Don’t lose it before we get a chance to make a perfect play to win it,’ and it hasn’t worked once.
The one that has worked is the one their opposition consistently uses—playing their best players right from the start.