Monday, May 5, 2014

Montreal Canadiens Must Find Answers at Even Strength

The Montreal Canadiens will look to rebound in Game 3 Tuesday night after a heartbreaking loss in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup against the Boston Bruins. But they will not be able to do it without improving their even-strength play.

Coming into the playoffs, the Canadiens were not a particularly strong team 5-on-5, ranking 22nd in puck possession and 16th in 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio. These are not earth-shattering statistics for a team that nearly earned itself home-ice advantage in the first round with 100 points. However, Montreal has shown in the past that it can dictate the play at even strength and it will have to do just that when they take to the ice at the Bell Centre tomorrow night.

This is no easy task for the Canadiens as it is up against one of, if not the best team in the league 5-on-5 in the Bruins. In fact, Boston ranked 4th in puck possession and 1st in 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio in the 2013-14 regular season. The Bruins have proven to be a dominant team at even strength and a lot of that is due to their depth up front.

The “Big Bad Bruins” have arguably the best forward group in the entire NHL, not to mention a back end that has the ability to shut down opponents with relative ease. This serves as a recipe for success both in the regular season and the playoffs and Montreal will need to find answers in Game 3 if it wants any chance of retaking the series lead.

In Game 1 and Game 2 at TD Garden, the Canadiens were very successful on the power play, scoring four of their seven goals on the man advantage. However, Montreal only managed to score three goals at even strength while Boston put seven (excluding Milan Lucic’s empty-net goal) past Carey Price, and that does not even represent how dominant the Bruins were 5-on-5. It felt like the Canadiens were on the penalty kill for much of Game 1 and part of Game 2.

Now, it is encouraging that the power play is starting to produce, but the man advantage cannot be relied upon to win all four games against Boston. That is just not realistic. At some point, Montreal is going to need to start playing better at even strength – not just to score, but to relieve some pressure from Price.

The first two games 5-on-5 were not particularly pretty for Montreal. The team was very hesitant in the defensive zone and had a hard time getting past the red line, let alone penetrating the offensive zone. When the Canadiens did penetrate the zone, it was often a quick in-and-out. The lack of sustained pressure is a concern heading into Game 3 and Montreal must find answers.

Where are the answers?

The answers lie in the Canadiens’ speed. When Montreal uses their speed to its advantage, it is hard to find a team that can stop it. The Canadiens used that tactic for their four regular-season games against the Bruins and it paid off, as Montreal went on to win three of them.

As with most teams, the Canadiens will have a difficult time gaining sustained pressure in the offensive zone against a stingy Boston team. However, if it uses its speed, along with its quick puck-moving abilities, sustained pressure will not be impossible at even strength.

We saw glimpses of it on the Francis Bouillon goal in Game 1 and Mike Weaver goal in Game 2.

Montreal will have to do more of that in front of their home crowd at the Bell Centre if it wants any chance of restoring a series lead. Relying solely on puck luck and Carey Price is not and will not be a recipe for success against this Bruins team. If the Canadiens stick to the game plan and get back to what it does best, the team could find itself heading back to Boston with a 3-1 series lead. If not, well, hopefully “Jesus Price” shows up.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Montreal Canadiens’ Keys to Victory Versus Boston Bruins in Round 2

As the Montreal Canadiens prepare to face an all-too-familiar opponent in the Boston Bruins Thursday night at TD Garden, one safe assumption fans can make heading into this series is it will be a classic, as it always is when these two teams clash.

But getting caught up in the rivalry is something the Canadiens will try to avoid heading into their Round-2 matchup against the Bruins. There is only one thing on their minds, and that is booking their ticket to the Eastern Conference Final.

This will be the 34th time the Canadiens and Bruins meet in the playoffs; a record among North American franchises. It is no secret these two teams hate each other. However, if the Canadiens are to have any chance of defeating the “Big Bad Bruins,” they are going to need to stick to the game plan.

Keys to victory                                                                                    

1.   Power play

Boston is a resilient team. Whether up by three or trailing a game by two goals, the Bruins play the same game style. They are a confident team, and rightfully so. Their lineup up front is arguably the deepest in the NHL and their back end finds ways to slow down the game and clog up the neutral zone, making it difficult for the opponent to penetrate the offensive zone. And, even if the opponent does manage to penetrate the zone, the Bruins have a brick wall, also known as Tuukka Rask, to keep the puck out of the net.

Now, these are all intimidating thoughts for Habs fans. However, the Bruins do have one weakness, and that is discipline.

For some reason or another, Montreal is in Boston’s head. The Bruins have proven to be a very composed team against most opponents. But when it comes time to playing their hated rivals, they cannot seem to stay out of the box. That has proven costly for the Bruins against Montreal in the past and, if Boston runs into the same problems in this series, the Habs must make them pay on the power play.

The power play has had its struggles, but it did show signs of improvement toward the end of the first round against the Tampa Bay Lightning. If the Canadiens can build off that and continue to improve the power play, they will give themselves a much-needed boost in this series.

2.   Transition game

Another element that is critical for Montreal to be successful in this series is their speed. The Canadiens must play to their strengths; that includes avoiding the physical game when possible.

The Habs are a small, fast team. Marc Bergevin has slowly started to change that identity, but Montreal is still nowhere near matching the physicality the Bruins can bring. If the Canadiens want any chance of winning this series, they are going to need to create chances off the rush.

Sustained pressure is ideal, but that will not always be possible against a defense as good as the Bruins. The Canadiens will have to count on their ability to move the puck up the ice and use their transition game to their advantage to score some timely goals.

Some skeptics say the only way to win in the playoffs is to play physical and the Canadiens cannot possibly win without hitting. This is simply not true. The key to winning games is playing to your strengths. Just ask the Chicago Blackhawks.

In Game 5 against the St. Louis Blues, the Blackhawks were outhit 54-17. Similar to Montreal, Chicago is not a particularly big team, but dominates the opponent with speed and skill. They used that to their advantage and it paid off, as they controlled the pace of Game 5 and went on to win a crucial match in a series that could have gone either way.

Montreal must not get caught up in the physical play. If they play to their strengths (transition), they will give themselves a chance to win every night.

3.   Goaltending

This is pretty self explanatory.

Carey Price will need to be one of, if not Montreal’s best player on the ice to have any chance of beating Boston. The Bruins have a tremendous amount of depth and can run four scoring lines. Price will need to be on the top of his game and come up with some pretty big saves when the score is close.

He is up against a very worthy opponent in Tuukka Rask, who has struggled against the Canadiens in the past. But all that gets thrown out the window when the puck drops at 19:30 ET Tuesday night.

With that said, the greatest rivalry in all of sports is set to do battle in just over 24 hours. Just drop the puck already.