Saturday, 2 February 2013

Game 3: Canadiens 4, Capitals 1

There was a lot of talk about Michel Therrien's new system before the season began, and I was skeptical as to how much it would differ from Jacques Martin's 'Le Système'.  Don't it seem like all teams now play 'dump and chase' in the offensive zone anyway?  Don't they all collapse back onto their goalie in the defensive zone and block shots, creating a big cluster in front of their goaltender and hoping that while they crosscheck and slash the opposition there will be a big enough tangle of legs and skates and sticks that a puck won't get through?

Gaston Therrien spent a lot of time on the video board on l'Antichambre on RDS, trying to educate viewers on the fine points of the new approach the Canadiens will employ.  He'd diagram how the team will put pressure on the puck with two defencemen and a winger in the corners in the defensive zone, with various rules such as: "The second defenceman will commit himself only if he's certain he'll get the puck".  In the offensive zone, he showed how the defenceman will pinch in and put pressure on the opposing puck carrier to prevent a zone clear, but it will be crucial that his winger be aware of this and cover him in case the puck/puck carrier does get through.  Anyway, Gaston demonstrated this with video taken at practice during the abbreviated training camp, and it all seemed to make sense and not be too earth-shattering, nothing too different than even what we were coached to do when I played rec league minor hockey.

So what's the big deal then?  Well, it seems that it has transformed the Canadiens in their approach and their entertainment quotient.  Whereas when we lost the puck in 'Le Système' one forward would put up cursory resistance and a semblance of a forecheck while the other four would race back to their zone to man the ramparts in Mr. Martin's Rope-a-Dope, the boys now are more aggressive, in a more attacking frame of mind.  They forecheck more, they don't abandon ship at the first hint of a turnover.  They don't yield territory willingly, promptly, to go turtle around Carey Price.

On offence, Nos Glorieux carry the puck more into the zone, instead of firing it into the corner and then chasing after it.  We've seen a lot more breakouts where the guys attack in formation, with the usual suspects on defence and even Josh Gorges on occasion joining the rush.

Now, this isn't objectively better or worse than the Jacques Martin Système.  It's not going to be judged on Gaston's videoboard or in a vacuum, but rather on the ice, and it's probably too early to make any definitive statements, but at first glance it seems to have had a very positive effect on the way the team plays.

First, the new style is much more entertaining.  While winning games is the ultimate goal and is fun no matter what system is being used, some of the wins last season were hard to stay awake for.  Most of the losses too.  Michel Therrien's system produces more watchable, fan-friendly hockey, if we discount the home-opening loss to the Leafs.

Another positive change is that while the team has cast off smaller/meeker players like Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez and Andrei Kostitsyn and ices a more physical lineup, the Canadiens are still at heart a skating team, with a forward corps that is smaller than the St-Louis Blues or the Bruins for example, and a mobile defence that is more adept at corralling the puck in the corners in flight and launching a counterattack, rather than squatting in its zone and slugging it out with the opposition.  As such, there were many analysts who proclaimed that we didn't have the right team makeup for the style we played, and that the constant banging and shot blocking it necessitated accounted for the parade to the First Aid room that endured for the last couple of seasons.  The new system is more suited to our mobile defence and lineup in general than the Système that Jacques Martin wrung so much out of.

One aspect which I think can't be underestimated is that the players must enjoy this style of play more, and it may account for an uptick in energy and commitment this season.  We routinely speculated over the last couple of seasons that Scott Gomez would insist on carrying the puck and then curling to the sideboards instead of shooting it in the corner and then chasing after it for the very good reason that going in the corners hurt, especially for a smaller guy like him.  He couldn't have been overjoyed at the prospect of facing off against Zdeno Chara or Anton Volchenkov, and we suspect that many other Canadiens felt the same.  Raphaël Diaz must have wondered what he was getting into when he had to stop a Jason Spezza shot with his ankle, and then go to the corner to wrestle for the puck with Chris Neil.

It's a little bit like football offensive linemen having to choose between the passing game or run blocking. While running the ball isn't that spectacular or necessarily a fan favourite, it's fun for the guys up front because they get to beat on the defensive players, compared to passing plays where they backpedal and the reverse occurs.  Lots of times, early in the game it seems pointless to run the ball, since it's only netting a yard or two per play, but  in the third quarter the toll mounts on the defence and often the results improve.  It's a cumulative result.

Similarly, last season we'd often see the Canadiens wilt in the third period and surrender a slim lead.  Going all out, giving 100% and sacrificing the body is all well and good, but when your shins are bruised and your lungs are on fire you can only do so much.  The Rope-a-Dope can work in extremis, but after a couple round of letting your opponent tee off on you a few shots inevitably get through and it starts to hurt.

Despite Mr. Martin's protestations to the contrary, the Canadiens were inherently defensive in their approach and designed to sit on a lead.  This season, if they don't so willingly retreat to their zone and act as punching bags, and are quick to the puck and quick to break out, it may be less likely that leads are frittered away, they may actually put teams away as the opposition presses to tie up a game.

This win against the Capitals was encouraging for a lot of reasons.  Tomas Plekanec again opened the scoring and seems to enjoy the company of his wingers René Bourque and Brian Gionta.  Andrei Markov again put up two points on the powerplay, was creative and dangerous on offence, and steady on defence, playing a total of 24 minutes and looking fluid while doing so.  Carey Price was solid, and seems poised to have the Vézina Trophy-contender type of season we've all been predicting for him.

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