One of my main takeaways from the Montreal Canadiens’ exhibition game against the Toronto Maple Leafs is that the Habs didn’t get their defenders involved enough in the offense. The blue-liners missed opportunities to jump on breakouts to receive cross passes from forwards, which would have helped the team pierce the neutral zone trap. And the times they backed up the offense, the forwards put on blinders and missed the chance to give them the puck to score scoring opportunities.
Here are two occasions in the previous game where defenders could have helped move the game forward. In the first, Nick Suzuki expected Shea Weber to join the rush for support, but ended up not passing to anyone. In the second, Brendan Gallagher didn’t see Victor Mete behind him, who could have been shot from the top of the circle with a simple drop-pass.
I was hoping to see the Canadiens get their defenders more involved against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the same problem persisted. The Blue-liners played additional safety. They didn’t try to skate until they encountered a defensive line. They just threw the puck to shoot forward into the neutral zone. The security strategy helped limit the rush of odd men, but also forced the Habs to play defense again and again, and they built up the negative shot differential early enough.
Still, as the game progressed, the breakouts got better and better. Then, the overtime period gave the team the biggest lesson in the value of using defensemen to support it. By accident, following a rush from the Danault line, the puck ended up going to Jeff Petry.
The Penguins’ defense was pulled down by the rush. Space opened up at the top of the area and Petry, a defender with attacking skills, took it. As soon as he shot the puck towards him, goalie Matt Murray’s positioning completely died out; the right side of his net opened, and Petry shot there for the goal.
Montreal can’t spend a full period in their zone and expect to win another game against a vindictive Penguins team. They must continue to look for shooting opportunities high in the area for their rear. They should also use them in transition to create a more consistent offense.
Gone are the days of three-player attacks. Now teams have to overload their attack and bring in a fourth and a fifth player if they want to break through the opposing defense.