Thursday, November 12, 2009

Shooting For Success

Getting Out Of The Basement

When you look back at a snapshot of the conference standings for November 12, 2009, you'll see that the Canadiens had dug themselves quite a hole. 16 points in 18 games isn't too bad, but it puts the team 11th in the conference and 23rd in the league. What's more, a few teams behind could overtake the Habs by playing 0.500 hockey in their (up to 4) games in hand. At the end of the day, if this were playoff clinching time, the team would only sit solidly ahead of 3 teams in the NHL: the Wild, Leafs and Hurricanes.

Recent chatter in the fan rooms has been all about our abysmal lack of scoring this season and the sudden need to acquire at least 2, if not 3, quality forwards to supplement the attack.

When the Canadiens lose they lose

Give them a close game and it seems they'll win. But, unlike the Islanders, Leafs, Stars and Lightning (who are all pacing 20 OTLs this season), the Canadiens have been in the habit of really losing in their losses.

This is a tricky thing to tease apart, but largely what it tells me is that the Canadiens are an easier team to play against when they are trailing. It seems the way they open up to try and score more goals.

You can really get a feeling for this trend when you look at the Habs record when scoring first vs. allowing the first goal. When taking the lead, the Canadiens are an impressive 6-1-0, while they falter to 2-9-0 when falling behind. It seems to make intuitive sense to us, but perhaps that's the way things have been, so habit for us observers. Detroit who have a better record are 0.400 when scoring first and 0.545 when falling behind; Columbus 0.500 and 0.545, Washington 0.600 and 0.667. In our league are teams like Nashville (0.833 and 0.200), Philly (0.750 and 0.000) and Dallas (0.700 and 0.000). In any case, you might accept the thesis here that being 6th best with the lead and 6th worse without it is not a good plan when you aren't scoring the first goal more than half the time.

Two solutions

From this point, there really are two possible solutions as I see it:

1) Score the first goal more, or

2) Change the way you build attacks when behind

Of the two, I think only a novice coach would settle on the first option and feel proud of his tactical excellence. An experienced coach will know that due to factors like temperamental goalies, bad luck and other teams opting for the same strategy make a dependence on the former folly.

Jacques Martin, being a very experienced coach then, will know that the answer lies with getting the troops to buckle down and not just defend the right way, but attack in the right way too.

In watching the games this season, I had been noticing the trouble with starting 5 offensive defencemen on most nights was that when we did fall behind to that early goal, there was a tendency for everyone to push a long way into the opposition's zone. While we can all get on the defencemens' cases for defensive breakdowns, and on the forwards for not coming back – we must also recognise that this sometimes inefficient style of attack is often the root of the problem.

Another observation I've made is that the new all shot, all the time offence is great, but doesn't really work when a) your defence is weaker than average and b) your goalies can't be counted on to make saves on the inevitable breaks that happen the other way. And although many seem to get equally frustrated with the Sergei/Andrei and Kovalev method of attack by sedation – it really did seem to suit the young goalies better to have the extended rest time.

Lessons from outside the rink

Being a swimmer, one of the sports I have played quite a bit has been water polo. In that sport, it is virtually impossible, largely because of the rules, to get the ball off the other team except by forcing them to shoot (that's why there is a shot clock...). In hockey, the prevailing attitude is that "you can't score unless you shoot", so therefore shooting is a good thing.

I would challenge that hockey could learn from water polo and other sports by starting to understand that not all shots are created equal. Not all are good shots. Some are merely asking for a turnover.

This really goes hand with attacking more efficiently when behind – as it speaks to attacking more efficiently at all times.

Forward, if your two linemates are behind the goal line – perhaps wait on shooting through that Dman. Pinching D, make sure you're covered if you come flying down the wing and intend to let off a shot at the goalie.

Of course, there's a balance, a team that stops shooting altogether just gets themselves into another mess. But the Habs have been getting this whole balance quite wrong so far this season. So as well as improving the goaltending and defensive zone play, I vote for an overhaul of the offensive brief as well.

Think it's too much to ask all at once? If you think that now, you've forgotten July...

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