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.