With most of the 09-10 season in the books, even the most myopic of Habs fans are beginning to understand that assigning the blame for a given loss to the game’s starting goalie is a fool’s venture. The Feb. 12 and 13 weekend games against the Flyers illustrated the futility of such an endeavor with depressing clarity: each goalie started a game, and each one lost. Moreover, many of the goals against were simply the result of atrocious breakdowns in defensive coverage that left Flyer forwards alone at the net and free to jam in their own rebounds. Without reliable metrics on either game, I can still say, based on the evidence of my own eyes, that the number of quality scoring chances we gave to Philadelphia in both games was stunningly high. Sadly, it’s not a momentary aberration but symptomatic of a season trend, which I’ll sum up thus: our overall team defense is brutal.
By ‘team defense’ I don’t simply mean our defensemen, though Bob Gainey’s love affair with signing aging blue liners (Hamrlik, Spacek, Gill) to inflated contracts hasn’t helped matters. Team defense refers to the overall team-wide understanding of a defensive system, an execution that involves forwards as much as defensemen. Do your wingers backcheck? Does your centre avoid costly turnovers at your blue line? Do your forwards as a unit remain in the zone on the breakout, or do they drift away to the red line, hoping to receive a stretch pass instead of relieving forechecking pressure on the defensemen? Are they able to pick up their coverage assignments in transition, or do they get easily confused and chase the puck instead of sticking to their man?
One problem we have, over and above our weak puck movement and propensity to turn over the puck for absolutely no reason (Hal, I’m looking at you), is that we have no intelligent anticipation in our own zone. Too often, instead of intercepting an enemy forward’s board pass before it reaches the blue line, our forwards are clumped in the slot, not even trying to pursue the puck intelligently, essentially acting as if we’re short-handed when in fact we’re at even strength. Result: we spend most of the game in our own end, which not only leads to player fatigue, turnovers, injury, and goals against, but also reduces the number of shots and scoring chances we get over the course of a game. It’s hard to score when the net is at the other end of the ice and you can’t get out of your zone.
When he became the head coach, Jacques Martin preached the need for a system based on puck possession and controlled five-man zone breakouts. We were going to attack the other team with speed and be disciplined defensively.
We’re still waiting, Jacques.