About the Canadiens’ lack of physical play or response to the Senators’ hits during their 4-1 loss, and I do think of the Bobby Ryan hit on Alex Galchenyuk, there are two reasons that are foremost in my mind.
First, we’re not a team of thumpers. We’ve taken Travis Moen and Ryan White out of circulation out of a roster that is already fleet of foot but relatively lightweight, and we’re replacing them with Michaël Bournival and Sven Andrighetto, for example. We’re a quick, fast team, and it plays to our advantage when we outrun other teams and pot goals.
Now, we look ineffective when so many players are in a slump concurrently. P.A. Parenteau and Jiri Sekac looked fine earlier in the season when they were generating chances and clicking with various linemates. Now that their production has dried up, along with David Desharnais’ and Lars Eller’s and so on, it makes us look relatively impotent.
But another big component is the mindset of the team. Some teams like the Sens or the Bruins rely on hitting, it’s part of their strategy. They accept that they won’t get to a Tom Gilbert or Andrei Markov before they dish off the puck, but that’s fine, as long as they ‘finish their checks’. They play with a comparative disregard for the puck, they’re not chasing it, just the guy who last had it, and will lay the body on him. Even after the puck is clearly long gone. As a matter of course, of strategy.
Like a football team running the football early in the game, laying the groundwork, pushing around the defence and tiring it out, or a boxer mostly ignoring his adversary’s head and pounding his ribcage and wrestling with him during clinches, they’re interested in punishing opponents, wearing them out, making them skittish. They hope to make them rush their play, and cause turnovers.
The Canadiens’ system is all about ‘la relance’, getting the puck and quickly going the other way with it. One of the products of that is that our forwards will often look to break up a pass or steal a puck from a stickhandling player with a quick stick, a poke check. To the detriment of opportunities to lay a good solid bodycheck, one that will send a message to an opponent, that a defenceman will absorb and factor into his time and space analysis the next time he has to make a decision with the puck.
And it’s frightfully apparent. So often, we see a Max Pacioretty or P.A. Parenteau or Lars Eller fly by a defenceman who’s just cleared the puck and is bracing/cowering for a bodycheck. They do the quick attempted pokecheck, and if they miss they’re off again, skating with abandon, trying to get the puck back. And the opponent is kind of surprised that he didn’t even get a perfunctory bodycheck on the board, even a pro forma hit. On another team, that forward might get chewed out. For us, that’s how we play.
I’m not quite saying that the coaches actively encourage our guys NOT to hit, but rather that they emphasize breaking out with the puck with speed.
In 24CH the first season, there were two instances of this. Once when Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien were having a post-game meeting and discussing a player stealing a puck away and nearly going on a breakaway, once when P.K. was specifically shown video of him going for a big hit along the boards and almost ignoring the puck. Jean-Jacques Daigneault and Michel Therrien told P.K. that a hit is great, but if the choice is between dishing out a hit or stealing the puck away, go for the puck. They made it clear that the object of the game is to gain control of the puck, that’s how you score and prevent goals against.
In our last game against the Avalanche, Daniel Brière had the puck along the half wall, and three Canadiens in the vicinity, intent on turning the puck over and charging up-ice, they were all leaning that way. All three failed to poke the puck free, Danny deked and got in the clear, passed to a teammate for a relatively easy goal. Looking at it, anyone could have easily neutralized Danny with a simple bodycheck, not to kill him or liquify his brain, but just to get him out of action for that sequence.
So it’s a little hard to swallow, it’s actually infuriating when we’re getting thumped by the Bruins or the Sens, but being outhit and out-‘physicalled’, as P.J. Stock would say, is something that is endemic, it’s intrinsically part of our system, as much as being outshot was part of the Jacques Martin système during the Skillsie years.
And a Bobby Ryan will buy in and follow and lay a big hit on an Alex Galchenyuk when he has a chance, but a Kyle Turris will remain unmolested, even in response. That’s not our mindset, we don’t play that way, we don’t grybafy our roster, accept a plodding crosschecker who can’t make a play with a puck just to have his truculence in our lineup. We’re not predatory that way, we don’t value a hit as something to be pursued for its own sake, for its cumulative effect.
Maybe this will change in the future in the medium term, when players like Jacob de la Rose and Mike McCarron and Jarred Tinordi fold into the lineup, guys who are naturally equipped and inclined to dish out bodychecks, that will tilt the balance a bit, but until then, we have to tweak our mindset a little bit and ensure we don’t automatically, actively ignore opportunities to finish a check. Once in a while, without it needing to be a devastaterator, a bodycheck on a Cody Ceci or Jean-Gabriel Pageau is useful.