It is safe to say the the Habs’ season comes down to tonight’s game 3 match up versus the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While losing tonight doesn’t officially end the season, going down 3-0 to a very good Lightning team will be a death blow.
While I picked the Lightning to win in 6, it seems like even more of an uphill battle for the Habs to drag it to 6 games. While we can write off game 2 as a complete debacle, the real gut punch game was the first one. The Habs played an excellent game only to come up short in double overtime. A win in that game changes the complexion of the series and perhaps none of the undisciplined behavior that marred game 2 happens.
We can’t change the past, but we can affect the future. As such I’ve outlined 5 factors I think will swing some of the momentum in their favor tonight...While it seems like it’s a little too late for any of these changes to really make a difference – when you’re back is against the wall, you either come out swinging for your life or your turtle and fade away.
1) Changing the lineup:
By all accounts, Bergevin attempted to bring in a top 6 winger at the trade deadline. While he did manage to nab Petry to help the blue line, he came short of acquiring a Thomas Vanek like forward up front. At the same time, I think Vanek’s play during last year’s conference finals run left somewhat of a bitter taste in Begevin’s mouth. As a result, it may have had something to do with his focus on getting gritty, bottom 6 players. While this hasn’t really panned out; Torrey Mitchell, at the very least, has proven to be an effective 4th line center, and an important defensive zone face off man. The fact remains: the Habs can’t score. Therrien has tried various different lineups throughout the year without yielding any significant results. There is no disputing that Max Pacioretty has been the Habs’ best forward this year, he led them in goals and points. Therrien has tagged him with frequent sidekick David Desharnais, and he is currently playing with Tomas Plekanec. It’s been fairly obvious, that Lars Eller has been the Habs best center lately, not just in the playoffs but down the stretch. Yet Therrien has not made the move to put Pacioretty on Eller’s wing. Perhaps having all your eggs in one basket is not a good idea, but at this point, with your season on the line, it may be time to bust out this pairing.
Other than that, we have to consider the curious case of Alex Galchenyuk. He played nine games at center earlier in the year; he scored 9 points in 9 games including a hat trick. That was his best stretch of the season, yet he was either removed from the role by Therrien due to his defensive play, or as some have suggested, he requested to be removed and put back on the wing. Perhaps the responsibility of playing center was too much for him. Once again with your season on the line, you need to go all in.
Ultimately Therrien is not known for his creativity or risk taking, he knows he has an ace in Price. So he has built a conservative, methodical strategy up front used to exploit his greatest strength – his goaltender. But with the Habs having scored only 7 goals in the last 5 games, even the staunchest supporter needs to admit that something‘s got to give here. While we all wait and sit patiently for a power play that has been dormant for a year and half. It would be nice to see the coach roll the dice with some brand new line up combinations in hopes of jump starting a moribund offense.
2) Beating Ben Bishop:
Bishop is now 12-1-2 in his career versus the Montreal Canadiens. He has a SV % north of 95%, and has looked more like Carey Price, than Carey Price. Prust’s attempts to throw Bishop off his game are well documented, and it seems that the Habs in general have gone out of their way to get in his crease, knock him over, and take their shots. Here’s the problem; it isn’t working. First of all; Bishop isn’t even his real name. His real name is The Mountain and he’s 6’10, and weighs 400 pounds. In all seriousness, Bishop is 6”7 and 215 pounds, he is imposing physically and most likely unaffected by the Habs small(ish) forwards. Second of all; he’s still dominating – other than flubbing a routine glove save, our forwards have no goals through two games. He weighs so heavily on the heads of the Habs’ shooters that they either miss the net while going for the perfect shot, or they shoot it right at the logo in his chest. Bishop is in a zone, there is no denying it. The best way to beat a hot goalie is to capitalize on the power play – which is what the Lightning did in game two. In lieu of that you need to get some lucky bounces, now while luck is something of an intangible force which you can’t affect, you can affect the “bounces” part. Instead of focusing on running Bishop, Habs players need to be looking for deflections and rebounds. While Bishop is enormous and covers so much net, he’s still a little jerky in his movement, and does give up plenty of rebounds. The message to the defensemen should be to keep pucks low and make sure they get through traffic. They need to do away with the high slap shots. The only way to score is to get pucks to the net, not past the net. Bishop is not invincible; cracking him gives the Habs the best chance of winning.
3) Play keep-away:
After Detroit almost beat Tampa Bay in 7, I was upset that we had to match up with Tampa instead of Detroit, but happy because I felt Detroit had provided the Habs with a good blueprint on how to stifle and frustrate the Lightning. It started in nets, where Mzarek was able to steal a game, and play at high level throughout. I felt good about this since the Habs have a “fairly good” goaltender. I was also impressed with how the Red Wings adapted after suffering a barrage of shots in the first two games. They began to cut off the neutral zone, and control the puck. The Lightning were the highest scoring team in the league, and they reached that level with a mediocre power play. At even strength, this team is freewheeling and fast skating. They love to bring the puck through the neutral zone, and carry it into the offensive zone. At that point their superior fore-check takes over and generates chances for all its myriad of offensive weapons. The Red Wings put a stop to that for the most part, by trapping them in the neutral zone, and forcing them to go outside. They followed this up by having the defenseman move the puck up quickly up the boards and not allowing the Lightning to set up any sort of fore-check. The best adjustment was Detroit realized the best way to neutralize the best offense in the NHL is to take away the puck. The Red Wings took the play to the Lightning, instead of dumping and chasing (a staple of Therrien); they used their skill carry the puck in and cycle against some of the slower Lightning defensemen. They did to the Lighting what the Lightning normally do to their opponents. In fairness to Therrien and the Habs, they did a good job of this this in game 1 and through the first ten minutes of game 2 before the wheels fell off. But this is not an inherent strategy of the Habs, and when the wrong personnel is on the ice, it’s impossible to generate the type of sustained pressure and cycle needed to control the puck.
4) Discipline/Special Teams;
I tied these two together because of the game two debacle. As mentioned above the Habs played an excellent first ten minutes of game two. Well that momentum was grounded,due to some selfish and undisciplined penalties taken by some of the Habs veterans. This type of behavior continued throughout the game to the tune of four Lightning power play goals. This problem was compounded by another “O fer” showing on the Habs power play (now an unbelievable 1 for 26 in these playoffs). At this point we are beating a dead horse, but the special teams play has got to be better. The Habs have no hope of beating this team 5 on 5, so they need to create that imbalance on special teams. Their stupidity in game two may have woken up a Lightning power play, however I suspect that it was a blip on the radar. Tampa has struggled with their power play all year,and the Habs’ penalty kill has been good for the most part. At the very least, the Habs should be conscious of playing a tight and discipline game, and not affording the Lightning any chances to find out whether or not their power play is really back or not. At the same time the Habs need their power play to wake up – one of the biggest critiques of Therrien is that he is stubborn and unimaginative, and the power play is the best example of that. After a year and a half of stagnation: the Habs continue to do the same thing game in and game out. There no fluid movement, no cuts, no short passes – everything is long and sweeping: from one side of the ice to the other. All of this in hopes of a P.K. Subban blast from the point. The problem is EVERYONE knows this is coming, and yet the Habs persist with this model. As mentioned already, the Habs need to concentrate on getting pucks to the net, and look for tips and rebound. While some have suggested changing the whole philosophy of the power play, I think it’s a little too late at this point of the season. So shorten some of the passing lanes and look to get pucks on Bishop and pray to the hockey gods.
That’s all I got , but if all else fails…well….
Go Habs Go.