Habs Beat the Pens: Jacques Lemaire Would Be Proud

In order to win a hockey, the concept is a rather simple. All you have to do is to score one more goal than your opponent. Whether you outscore your them in a game 2-1 or 8-5, it still only counts as one win. In time, people won’t remember the score, or the way the games went. They will only remember that the Montreal Canadiens, a team that had no business competing for the playoffs this year, pulled the upset by defeating the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins three games to one in the best of five series.

This win, heavily signed Carey Price, Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Ben Chiarot, sent two of the NHL’s biggest stars packing. Sidney Crosby finished the series with two goals, one assist for three points while co-star Evgeni Malkin only managed a meager assist in four games. Malkin had to face the duo of Weber and Chiarot the entire series and as noted by yours truly and others on our Twitter feed, it sure seems like he was getting rid of the puck every time Weber was close to him.

The famous trap

Call it strategy, smothering or anti-hockey, the Canadiens turned what used to be a fast and entertaining team into a boring but perhaps more efficient defense-first group. And that’s how they managed to keep the Penguins off the scoresheet most of the series. Let’s rejoice as the trap is back in Montreal, folks. Made popular by Jacques Lemaire when he coached the Canadiens, then the New Jersey Devils, and continued with Jacques Martin, this style of hockey was gone with Michel Therrien and then, for a while, under Claude Julien. Fans loved the entertaining style of hockey, fast, back and forth, that the Habs were playing. Win or lose, you were sure to be entertained by going to or watching a Montreal Canadiens’ game.

But that started changing back in February of 2019, when Julien returned to his old habits. Since then, he has been trying to get back to his old boring, defensive style and its smothering system and up until this series, it had failed miserable as the Canadiens were playing for .500, well on their way of missing the playoffs… once more. Oh, the Habs had their breakdowns in their own zone and in the neutral zone in this series but they were able to count on a Carey Price at the top of his game when things went sideways.

“I thought our structure got better. I thought we developed into a really defensive cluster and made it more difficult for them to come up the ice. We were just competing in our end. I think that’s what it came down to.” ~ Carey Price

Julien is proud of himself, of his team in general, and he should be. When the goal of the game is winning, he has done that. The offensive stars on the Pens didn’t have many opportunities as the Canadiens often found themselves with five players deep in their zone. At some point, it was to wonder if it was Julien’s team or if they had reverted back to the days of Martin…

“We knew their backs were against the wall. They were going to be desperate. But I think defensively, we did a great job.” ~ Claude Julien

Entertainment value

But what truly matters to the fans? It depends who you ask. With the exception of this unique COVID Cup, those fans do pay big dollars to attend games. Professional sports, while a business to those involved, remains entertainment for fans. You don’t believe me? Then explain why the NHL got rid of the tie games? Because they felt like fans wanted a winner at the end of a game. In reality, most long time fans couldn’t care less if they went home with a tie, as long as they were entertained.

Claude Julien

Which brings the question: what do fans want more? Their team winning with a boring trap-style of hockey or with a high-tempo, back and forth game? Let’s not make the mistake of believing that all trap teams have success, as not all offensive-minded teams are losing. In all honesty, it depends on the composition of their team.

The Canadiens have proven, when Julien first returned to Montreal, that they were an entertaining group in spite of their seemingly lack of high end talent up front. You can create excitement by activating your defense and by having a good group of skaters, which is what they did (and still do). So why that change, really? It comes with the mentality that everyone must buy in a system that favorizes defense first, and offense only if an opportunity occurs.

The Canadiens dumped the puck out of their zone every chance they got in this series against the Pens. And ultimately, when the goal is winning, it worked for them. But this is the most boring team I’ve seen since the days of the two Jacques: Lemaire and Martin. Tomas Tatar, Max Domi (playing on the 4th line?!?) and Joel Armia are still looking for their first point while Brendan Gallagher and Jonathan Drouin each managed… a single point. Smothering.

It is my humble opinion that after this fake dream of a COVID Cup is over for the Habs, GM Marc Bergevin should pull the pin on his coach and give the reins to a younger, more proactive man at the helm.

Clarification on Draft pick

Now that Montreal has moved on to the playoffs’ round, they will not have a shot at drafting Alexis Lafrenière and that has left some fans quite confused. Should they cheer for their team to win or to lose to get a better pick, helping them in the future? That ship has sailed, fortunately or unfortunately depending on which side of the fence you find yourself.

Unless they trade, the Canadiens are now set to pick 16th overall, unless they reach the Conference Finals. This means that they would still pick 16th if they were to win their next series and lose the one after. With that known, here’s hoping that every Habs’ fan can leave their differences aside and do what fans are supposed to do: complain. Just kidding! Cheer on their favourite team. Go Habs Go!

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