How the Montreal Canadiens can get back into the Eastern final
It doesn't take a Memento-style note on your hand to recall the last time a team dug its way out of 3-0 deficit in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was just last month that the Los Angeles Kings woke up in the nick of time to put together four straight wins and send the San Jose Sharks off to a summer of head-shaking shame.
But even in this Golden Age of Parity, a hole that deep is best left undug. For the Montreal Canadiens, that means win Game 3 tonight in New York or pray that the Rangers are suddenly afflicted with the same "we'll get 'em next time" malaise that sank the Sharks after their loss in Game 4.
So, how do the Habs put down their shovels?
They start by doing exactly what they were doing in Game 2. A loss tends to make a lousy pattern to follow, but there was plenty to love about Montreal's effort in that 3-1 defeat, starting with an explosive performance from its top line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher. The trio has put up a 77 percent Corsi rating through the first two games of the series and spent virtually all of Game 2 in the offensive zone. Desharnais, for example, was on the ice for 24 of Montreal's shot attempts compared to just three for the Rangers. That's not just making life easier on Dustin Tokarski. That's applying some real pressure.
It's bad puck luck that this line couldn't create more than a single goal out of that much possession. But that success suggests that if the trio can maintain a level even remotely close to what it achieved in Montreal, the bounces will start coming its way.
One place to look for those bounces is on the power play. The Habs struggled with the extra man in Games 1 and 2, blanking on seven chances while they watched the Rangers connect four times. As bad as that looks, the numbers suggest that's where they're most likely to strike. Of the four teams still in contention, the Canadiens have the most lethal power play at 32 percent.
Possession like the Habs enjoyed during the first two games forces the other team to take penalties. But that only matters if the Canadiens can make them pay.
Montreal needs to continue shooting from everywhere and anywhere--Daniel Briere can point to Game 7 of the Boston series and attest to the fact that any shot is worth taking. But to maximize their chances, the Habs need to get bodies to the net and sticks on pucks once they get there. They tested Lundqvist with just one second-chance shot in the third period of Game 2. One. That's a workload he can handle. It's not just about forcing him to make saves. The Canadiens have to force him to make tough saves. Make him pick the puck up through a pile of bodies. Get him moving side to side. Force him to look behind as well as in front of him. In other words, challenge him with quality, not just quantity.
And finally, Michel Therrien has to play Thomas Vanek until he drops.
Counterintuitive? Sure. The playoffs version of Vanek seems to have as much regard for his own zone as Adam Sandler does for his credibility. Maybe we should be past the point of expecting any sort of honest effort from either of them. Therrien seems to feel that way about his winger. The coach skated Vanek on the fourth line with his old Buffalo running buddy Briere this morning, which makes some sense. Fewer minutes, fewer defensive responsibilities, lesser quality competition. Maybe Vanek can get more done with less.
But we're six weeks removed from that solid stretch of hockey Vanek produced to close out the regular season, a time when he and Desharnais and Pacioretty looked all but unstoppable. He's been lousy since then, but he has to understand that he's shedding free agency dollars by the millions with each sleepy performance. At some point pride and self-interest have to kick in. And ultimately, he's the only Canadiens forward with the hands to make Lundqvist sweat through one of those finely tailored suits. So, win or lose, Vanek is Montreal's guy...unless the habs really want their season resting in the cement-soft hands of Rene Bourque.