Coaching in the Stanley Cup playoffs is often likened to a chess match, and it’s true – the postseason is about deploying one’s pieces strategically.
However, there may be a better comparison for what the Montreal Canadiens’ Michel Therrien has done to the Tampa Bay Lightning: behavioural economics’ “nudge theory.”
No defensive plan can limit all of the offensive options on a hockey rink, not when NHL-calibre players are involved. But it’s possible to “nudge” a team into choosing the options against which you are best positioned to defend.
That is what the Habs have done, and it has worked well enough to stake Montreal to its first 3-0 series lead since – deep breath, everyone – 1993, the last time a Stanley Cup parade was held on Rue Sainte-Catherine.
By moving his defencemen up the ice and employing an aggressive fore-check, Therrien’s obvious aim is to prevent the Lightning forwards from building up speed in the neutral zone. Trap is an ugly word in hockey, but it applies here.
“We’ve been trying to clog it up and not let them come up with speed,” said Rene Bourque, who has emerged from his season-long offensive torpor to score three goals in the past two games.
There are well-established tactics to foil that plan – most notably skating up the boards and chipping pucks back to the middle to an onrushing teammate – and the Lightning have made those adjustments and several more besides. But only to middling effect.
And sometimes the Habs are just lucky. On Sunday, Tampa sniper Steven Stamkos was whistled for an extremely tight offside call, denying him a breakaway.
Stamkos, incidentally, told reporters “I feel pretty good,” and that he expects to play in Tuesday’s Game 4. The 24-year-old got up woozily Sunday after sliding into the path of defenceman Alexei Emelin, whose knee accidentally clipped Stamkos’s head. Though he scored a pair of goals in Game 1 of the series, the league’s deadliest goal-scorer has been largely contained since then.
“I think the biggest key to our success so far has been our forwards: how hard they work, the pressure they put on the puck all over the ice. Not just on the fore-check deep in their end, but at the bluelines, coming back, back-pressuring. When they do that … it allows us as defencemen to hold our gaps,” said Josh Gorges.
“We’ve been good at adjusting on the fly to different things and playing to our strengths without letting them play to their strengths,” added centre Lars Eller, who has four points in the series and has been one of the Habs’ most effective players.
In herding the Lightning into the middle of the ice, collapsing to take away the slot in the defensive zone, making subtle changes to breakout plays and relying heavily on their top four defencemen – P.K. Subban (who’s been brilliant), Andrei Markov, Emelin and Gorges are each averaging more than 24 minutes per game – the Habs are managing to hold onto the puck more than they did.
After finishing the season as the sixth-worst puck-possession team in the regular season, Montreal is now near the top of the rankings in the playoffs (beware the small sample size). They have racked up 56.2 per cent of the shots and shot attempts at five-on-five while the games are close (a measure known as Fenwick), and, per extraskater.com, have a .962 save percentage in those situations. Apparently it helps to have Carey Price in net.
But those numbers are the result of the game plan, and of the Habs’ depth – 11 of the team’s 12 regular forwards have points in the series.
Eventually, the Lightning players and coaches will solve the Montreal defensive game-plan long enough to win a game or two – they have, after all, scored seven goals in the series. It’s in the Habs’ interest to not let them hang around, which is its own kind of pressure.
“We’ve only played three games, but so far so good,” Eller said. “Now we’ve just got to keep riding that wave.”