When sophisticated equipment falters the first step is to run a diagnostic check, so let’s delve into the data for the Montreal Canadiens’ finely tuned goal-scoring machine, Max Pacioretty.
First off, the 35-goal man has 19 shots in four first-round playoff games against his boyhood favourites, the New York Rangers, which led the league going into Wednesday’s games.
He is also tops among Habs forwards in generating scoring chances at even strength, according to Corsica Hockey, so the argument his shots are strictly low-percentage hope plays doesn’t seem to hold true.
The system appears to be working pretty well as designed, so how come he’s got zero goals and only one point?
There are external factors to consider, such as the opponents trying to smother him.
It’s not that Pacioretty is playing terribly, but when you’re captain of the Canadiens, the pressure is constant.
And it only builds as the playoff spotlight intensifies.
Precedent indicates it’s only a question of time before Pacioretty rediscovers his offensive touch – as he said this past weekend hockey is “all mental, all feel.”
In his past two playoff appearances he had one goal through the first five games before breaking out (in 2015 he had one in his first nine, then four in his last seven).
A big diesel takes longer to warm up than a zippy sports car.
The problem: Time is not something Montreal has in abundant supply, with their best-of-seven series knotted at two games each.
The 27-year-old Pacioretty has worked hard in recent seasons to modify his outlook – this is a player who is extremely hard on himself – and through the first week of the playoffs he has been unrelentingly sunny.
“Everything is positive in the room right now,” he said before Game 3 in New York, suggesting the “good feelings” have made it easier for the Habs to recover from setbacks.
The next 24 to 48 hours will be a stiff test for Pacioretty’s – and coach Claude Julien’s – doctrine of insistent positivity.
On Wednesday, Julien felt moved to proffer a vigorous endorsement of his captain after the team met for a video session and meetings.
“We’re jumping on a guy here that’s scored 30 goals every year. All of a sudden people think, ‘Well, he hasn’t scored yet, let’s jump on Max Pacioretty,’ ” he said. “Max Pacioretty is a good captain. Right now, he’s doing whatever he can. He wants to be better.”
Pacioretty used almost exactly those words after Montreal’s 2-1 defeat in Game 4, in which he bore part of the blame for the deciding goal.
The question is how.
Goal scoring tends to be a streaky proposition and – shocker alert – it’s harder to do in the playoffs, where space is compressed as defenders raise their intensity.
It’s no coincidence most of the NHL’s top scorers rack up a lot of their points against non-playoff teams in the regular season. (Pacioretty scored 24 of his 35 against also-rans, Sidney Crosby tallied 28 of his league-leading 44 on teams that are no longer playing.)
The Rangers’ plan for Pacioretty is not especially subtle: stick rough-hewn right defenceman Dan Girardi in his face as much as possible, and have the equally rugged Ryan McDonagh pile in for support as needed.
Girardi sent Pacioretty cartwheeling to the ice with a spectacular hit in the first period of the series opener, and the latter has mostly spent the series surrounded by two or three blue shirts. (For what it’s worth, Montreal is doing the same thing to New York’s 28-goal guy Chris Kreider, and using feisty winger Brendan Gallagher in the effort to tenderize McDonagh.)
After Game 4, Pacioretty said the physical barrage by the Rangers – who lead the playoffs in hits – is just another challenge to overcome: “It’s up to us to fight through it.”
Ironically, it’s a strategy not unlike what Julien deployed to nullify the Vancouver Canucks in the 2011 Stanley Cup final. That team was coached by Rangers boss Alain Vigneault.
The great tactical question involves what Pacioretty and his teammates can do to thwart it. More speed ought to do it and scoring early at home on Thursday might help, doubly so if the goal were to come from big No. 67.
Julien noted “this is a sport that has ups and downs ... through ebbs and flows, we can choose to be who we want to be. I choose to support him and help him be better.”
He plainly views it as his job to take the pressure off his captain.
That involves defending him publicly, but also doing things such as flipping Andrew Shaw and Alex Radulov in a bid to give Pacioretty and Phillip Danault’s line a different look.
More tinkering on the coaching staff’s part will surely follow.Report Typo/Error