Sports By the numbers: Tactical shift propelled Canadiens to win in Game 1
Stu Cowan: Shutt's advice to Habs' rookie sniper Caufield — Just shoot
Steve Shutt chuckled Thursday morning when asked what it’s like to watch someone else scoring goals for the Canadiens while wearing his old No. 22. “I actually did an interview with Cole (Caufield on the Canadiens’ website) and he sounds like a really nice kid,” Shutt said from his home in Sarasota, Fla. “But I see a lot of similarities between the two of us and I told him that. I was giving him a couple of tips and one of the things was — I guess Corey Perry was telling him: ‘If you got the shot, take it. Don’t be passing it.’ I told him: ‘Cole, you’re a shooter. Whatever everybody else tells you, you’re a shooter. Don’t even waste your time passing the puck because I never did.
Video: Toronto Maple Leafs' John Tavares arrives at hospital after playoff game injury (Global News)
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, you couldn’t have scripted a worse outcome for Game 1 of their first playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens since 1979. A horrific accidental collision between Corey Perry and John Tavares ended with the Maple Leafs’ captain being carried off the ice on a stretcher, and will probably keep him out for a long time.
Canadiens Notebook: Offence could be a big problem (again) for Habs
Scoring goals has been a problem with the Canadiens for a long time. The last time the Canadiens had a player finish in the top 10 in NHL scoring was the 1985-86 season when Mats Naslund finished eighth with 43-67-110 totals. The Canadiens won the Stanley Cup that year. The Toronto Maple Leafs had two players finish in the top 10 in NHL scoring this season. Mitch Marner finished fourth with 20-47-67 totals and Auston Matthews was fifth with 41-25-66 totals. Tyler Toffoli led the Canadiens in scoring with 28-16-44 totals, ranking 48th in the NHL. The Maple Leafs ranked sixth in the NHL in offence this season, scoring an average of 3.
On top of losing their captain and second-line centre, the Maple Leafs saw a resurgent Carey Price in the Canadiens’ crease, looking very similar to the goalie who nearly single-handedly eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in last season’s playoff play-in round.
Price was brilliant in Game 1, with the game seemingly turning on a sensational save on Mitch Marner on a two-on-one break. Beyond Price though, there were some clear tactical choices from the Canadiens that influenced the result.
Jack Han, a tactical analyst and former assistant coach of the Toronto Marlies, wrote about thethrough the neutral zone in a bid to burn through the Maple Leafs’ defence with speed. That strategy is often deployed by teams that find themselves in a talent mismatch.
Hickey on hockey: We've seen this Canadiens movie before
The Canadiens have rediscovered their identity and it’s a far cry from the exciting, uptempo team that entertained fans at the start of the season. The blueprint for success in the North Division playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs was on display Thursday. The Canadiens tried to slow down the high-powered Leafs by hitting anything that moved in a white sweater and then relied on goaltender Carey Price to do his best impersonation of a brick wall.
How do you compensate for losing the battles for zone time and lacking in high-quality shooters? Take risks to create the highest quality chances for your speediest forwards. There are drawbacks to the approach of constantly looking for the long-bomb pass, such as an increased rate of icing, but Josh Anderson’s and Paul Byron’s goals in Game 1 were created by stretching the ice in the neutral zone.
Theleaves a huge hole in the Maple Leafs’ lineup down the middle, and puts an incredible amount of pressure on Auston Matthews to create offence. A suddenly short-handed Toronto squad, a rejuvenated Price and a tactical change that can create high-quality chances out of failed Leafs possessions have created a path to victory for the Canadiens where one didn’t look visible before the series began.
But how likely is it that the Canadiens can pull this off?
Looking at how things shook out in Game 1, the Canadiens’ control of play was oddly inverted from 5-vs-5 to special teams. Part of the reason for that is simply because the Canadiens had two extra minutes of power-play time in the game, but while the Canadiens tallied more shots with the man advantage, the Leafs had better chances on their opportunities.
Canadiens Notebook: Tyler Toffoli can give Habs a reason to believe
The Canadiens will be facing elimination when they play the Maple Leafs in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series Thursday night in Toronto (7 p.m., CBC, SN, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio). The Canadiens, who have scored two goals in the last three games, now have to win three straight — including two in Toronto — to advance to the North Division final against the Winnipeg Jets. The Canadiens were only able to win three consecutive games three times all season, so the odds of that happening now appear to be somewhere between slim and none. The Canadiens also have a 4-8-1 record against the Leafs this year, including the regular season.
The opposite was true at even strength, where the Canadiens were limited to 18 shots compared with the Leafs’ 27, and yet managed to hold a slight edge in scoring chances and high-danger chances, meaning they were penetrating the slot more effectively than the Leafs were.
At 5-vs-5, the Maple Leafs still held the edge in expected goals, but not by nearly as much as you would expect considering they controlled 60 per cent of the shots on goal.
It’s impossible to determine until more games are played how much of this was influenced by the Leafs’ reaction to Tavares’ injury, but the Canadiens’ focus on generating a few golden chances and capitalizing at even strength was paired well with the fact that they were able to play a very low-event game.
What I mean by that is, in an average regular-season game for the Maple Leafs, the team produced an expected 2.47 goals for per 60 minutes at 5-vs-5, the fourth-highest mark in the NHL after the Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights and Carolina Hurricanes. In Game 1, their per-60-minute pace in expected goals was only 1.83, which would place them below the 31st place Detroit Red Wings (1.88).
Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens: Live score, updates, highlights from Game 6 of Stanley Cup playoffs
The Canadiens are still playing for their playoff lives but maybe the Maple Leafs are too.There are a few reasons why:
When you can take a dynamic offensive team out of their element and keep the number of high-end scoring chances to a minimum, you are decreasing the amount of control they can exert on the game in general. While the Maple Leafs have more players who can convert on limited opportunities than the Canadiens do, if Carey Price continues to perform like he did in Game 1, the Canadiens would drastically increase their chances of winning by relying on a bit of puck luck in very few opportunities.
The Canadiens could increase their chances by adding Cole Caufield to the lineup as well, which might have helped them convert on one of those five power plays. While the Canadiens appear to have an opening to upset the heavily favoured Leafs, let’s not forget that several things broke right for them in Game 1, like the Leafs committing three puck over glass infractions, the rest of the series will probably be more difficult.
Andrew Berkshire is a Montreal-based hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.
Stu Cowan: Canadiens' back-to-back OT wins rekindle memories of 1993 .
Am I the only one who started having flashbacks to 1993 after Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored in overtime of Game 6 Saturday night at the Bell Centre to give the Canadiens a 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs? I know it’s only the first round of the playoffs, but it was the second straight OT win for the Canadiens while facing elimination after Nick Suzuki scored in Game 5 in Toronto for a 4-3 victory. The Canadiens were facing elimination for the third straight game in Game 7 Monday night in Toronto. I don’t think anyone was predicting the Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup this year and I had them losing in five games to the Leafs.