Montreal Canadiens' Defence Suffocates Lightning to Take Control of Series

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Montreal Canadiens' Defence Suffocates Lightning to Take Control of Series
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If it weren’t for the fact that the players, jerseys and coaches were the same, it would have been easy to believe that Game 1 and Game 2 in the first-round series between the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning were from two totally different matchups. Where the first meeting had been wide open, the second was a much tighter affair with fewer defensive breakdowns on both sides.

There were similarities, though. Just as in Game 1, Montreal was the better team by a significant margin, had no problem scoring and took away the win (this time by a final score of 4-1).

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It would be easy to focus on the scoring, because the Canadiens have excelled in that department. Fourteen of Montreal’s 18 skaters in the series have a point through two games, and the team’s balanced attack includes eight different goal scorers. For good measure, the Habs have put goals away at even strength, on the power play and while short-handed.

Keying in solely on the offence, however, would ignore a rather interesting story in this series: the evolution of Montreal’s defensive game.

The Canadiens were reasonably solid through three periods in Game 1, allowing four really high-quality chances (by contrast, the Lightning surrendered 14); only some struggles in net prevented a win in regulation. In overtime, however, Tampa Bay started finding some success, getting four high-end chances in the 18:08 that period lasted before Dale Weise’s decisive goal.

Montreal’s coaching staff, while doubtlessly happy with the win over Tampa Bay, wanted the team to improve upon those errors.

Alex Brandon

“We had some breakdowns and we’re going to work to correct that,” Michel Therrien was quoted as saying by The Gazette columnist Pat Hickey after that first game, with the reporter wryly noting that the Habs' head coach had “never met a 1-0 game he didn’t like.”

Therrien must have been happy with what he saw on Friday. Montreal limited Tampa Bay to all of two Grade A scoring chances, one of those (Teddy Purcell’s late goal) coming while the team was down a man. At even strength, the best attempt the Lightning got on net was a Cedric Paquette shot from point-blank range late in the second period; other than that, the Canadiens didn't have a defensive breakdown resulting in a big chance against goalie Carey Price.

As CBC’s Elliotte Friedman noted, the Habs also did a great job of shutting down Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos:

Even that understates the case. Stamkos’ first two shots came in the opening flurry where Tampa Bay was shooting from everywhere, and none of his three shots in the game came from what is typically recognized as the scoring-chance area.

Scott Audette/Getty Images

These are dark times for Tampa Bay. Down 2-0, down multiple players (including star goalie Ben Bishop, who makes up for so many other weaknesses), Jon Cooper’s team now has to go to Montreal and find some way to get back into this series.

Not only does the club need to play a tight defensive game, given the untrustworthiness of de facto starter Anders Lindback, but somehow it needs to get the offence going. Somehow Cooper needs to find a way to balance those two needs if his team is to prevent a sweep.

At the other end of the series, Therrien has been criticized frequently this season for his decisions as Montreal’s coach, but his insistence on defensive play seems to be paying off. His team’s Game 2 victory was a virtually perfect example of how to win a hockey game, and if the Habs can repeat it in any two of the next five contests, they’ll be bound for the second round.

For more by Jonathan Willis, follow him on Twitter.

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