Battle plan key to Canadiens victory

By Chris Boucher
The NHL playoffs are a marathon tournament where success is measured not by a player’s personal statistics, but by the length of their playoff beard. Longevity is the key to success, and this longevity comes from winning the battles within the war. Any chance for a Montréal Canadiens’ opening-round victory can be found in their battle plan.

The Canadiens begin the playoffs against the Eastern Conference’s top team. The Habs are over-matched offensively, as well as physically. The mainstream media will tell you that the Habs have to play a sound defensive system, while relying on a phenomenal Jose Theodore to steal at least two games in order to win the series. These are indisputable facts, but what does this sound defensive system entail?

The patient system that the Canadiens will need to use comes with some rules. The most important of which is to support the puck carrier; as much in the defensive zone, as in the offensive zone. Regardless of the zone, puck-support comes from the third man into any scrum for the puck. In the defensive zone, the first player fighting for the puck’s primary concern is to try to get body position on his opponent (tie him up). This will allow the player producing the support ( the third man) to play the puck; the third man quickest to the puck in this instance should normally get possession.

In the neutral zone, as well as just inside the offensive and defensive blue lines, puck-support comes from making sure that the player handling the puck is not the last man back. Thereby ensuring that a turnover doesn’t necessarily result in a scoring chance against.

In the offensive zone, puck-support not only comes from keeping a third man high in the zone, but also from “targeting-up”. Targeting-up is about positioning away from the puck. More specifically, having an outlet pass available to the player with the puck. This not only spreads out the defense, but also allows for better puck-movement within the offensive zone.

The Bruins are a creative offensive team that can score off the rush. This brings us to the next fundamental involved in the Habs’ defensive system; closing the gap. The Canadiens need to play as a five-man unit, particularly in the neutral zone. Closing the gap involves having all five players inside the neutral zone whenever the puck is there. Normally, an outlet pass by a defenseman will travel past the opposing forwards to a teammate defended only by the opposition’s defenseman. By closing the gap, the Habs will take away (for the most part) the Bruins ability to get speed through the neutral zone. Without this speed, the task of creating offense off the rush becomes frustrating to the point of impossible.

Playing a sound defensive system also means a one-two-two forechecking system. This plan doesn’t allow for defenseman to pinch, and it also takes away the forwards’ ability to create out-numbered situations down low. But like most rules, there are exceptions. The Bruins only have one right-handed defenseman (Nick Boynton). Which means that five out of six Boston defenseman with possession of the puck in the corner to Byron Dafoe’s right will be forced to make an outlet pass to the half-boards on their backhand. If Hab forwards can read the play and recognize this situation, they’ll need to react quickly and forecheck the vulnerable defenseman with two men (with the third man supporting the weak-side). Any pressure here will create a turnover, and any turnover where the offensive team outnumbers the defensive team usually results in a scoring chance.

On the same subject, the Bruins have only one left-handed left winger. This means that any Boston transition from defense to offense involving an outlet pass to the left-winger could create a pinching opportunity for a Montréal defenseman; particularly Patrice Brisebois, and Craig Rivet. Why? Because the Bruin winger, like the defenseman in the preceding example, will be on his backhand. Thereby making it more difficult for him to move the puck up the wall, or to find his centerman moving up the middle of the ice (the winger will have his back to his own centerman).

Longevity is a huge part of any success in a playoff run. A seven game playoff series is like seven different wars. The team that wins the most battles within each war will always come away with a victory. In this metaphor as in the real thing, the key to a Canadiens’ victory is in the battle plan.

Hab You Heard?

The Canadiens signed Tomas Plekanec to a 3-year contract. Plekanec was drafted in the third round of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft (71st overall). He played last season for Kladno of the Czech Extraliga, where he managed 23 points (7-16-23) in 48 games to go along with 28 minutes in penalties, and a minus-7 rating. Kladno finished the season in last place, and Plekanec led the struggling team in assists as a 19-year-old.

**Click on the Canadiens’ logo at the top left of the page to see a listing of the Habs’ top prospects. Including biographical information and stats.

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