The National Hockey League affords a small but vital luxury to teams still standing as the regular season ends and the playoffs are yet to begin: practice time.
Therefore, if your power play is staggering along at an 0-for-23 clip, you break it down. On Monday, for instance, the Montreal Canadiens’ coaches took the unusual step of briefly sending the power-play units onto a separate ice sheet at the club’s practice facility.
Yes, it’s reached the point where they’re practising without opposition.
There’s method to this madness: Shedding well-worn strategies (opponents figured out in mid-November that the best way to defuse the Habs’ powerplay was to take away P.K. Subban’s point shot) and concocting new wrinkles becomes a necessity as the playoffs loom.
In Montreal’s case, that surely means creating more movement and opening up shooting opportunities for forwards such as Thomas Vanek, Max Pacioretty and Mr. Playoffs himself, Daniel Brière, the 36-year-old who is a point-per-game player in the post-season.
Head coach Michel Therrien is not without faults, but ignoring the minutiae is not among them. As forward Lars Eller put it after practice, “He’s a detail guy.” And it’s the time of year when little things take on a disproportionate importance.
Montreal’s first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning promises to be a closely fought affair, so if your power play isn’t great (the Habs’ penalty kill is elite), now’s when you refine.
It’s also when assessments are made on banged-up players. Veteran mucker Travis Moen is still recovering from a concussion, and explosive winger Alex Galchenyuk has already been ruled out of the first round with a leg injury, but there was positive injury news Monday. Brandon Prust, a penalty-killing grit merchant, has sufficiently recovered from an “upper-body problem” to resume practice, and two-way centre Eller, who missed three games because of a virus, was also back on the ice.
Post-season series are usually decided on the margins, and while Prust and Eller aren’t near the top of the Habs’ scoring chart, they are the kinds of players – skillful third-liners, fifth defencemen, special-teams guys – who help give playoff teams an edge.
Eller has had his troubles this season, but he has rounded into form over the past month or so, as he did a year ago when he was arguably the Habs’ best centre. A vicious hit by the Ottawa Senators’ Eric Gryba disrupted all that, leaving him unconscious in the first period of the 2013 playoff opener.
Though most of the tough defensive assignments this season have been handled by Tomas Plekanec, a player like Eller could have a significant influence in games in Tampa, where Lightning coach Jon Cooper gets to dictate match-ups with the final line change.
“I feel like I’ve been in one playoff series, against Boston in 2011. Last year I played one period, so I’m really hungry. It feels like long ago,” Eller said.
While the 24-year-old Dane stands to play in only his ninth NHL post-season game Wednesday, the Habs aren’t exactly callow youngsters – rookie Michael Bournival, who will likely start the post-season in the press box if Prust is cleared to play, is the only Hab with no NHL playoff experience.
Subban, who became a full-time NHLer in the 2010 playoff run that saw Montreal reach the conference finals, said this team isn’t just happy to be here. “This is my fourth year in the league,” he said. “The one year we went to the Eastern Conference finals, but ever since then we haven’t been able to get past the first round. Experience is one thing, but it takes more than that to win in the playoffs.”
Subban added: “We’re a confident group in here, and I feel that we still have a lot of guys that have something to prove in playoff time … It’s a matter of showing we can step up.”
That group includes goalie Carey Price, who has won a World Junior Championship, an American Hockey League title and an Olympic gold medal, but whose finest playoff performance – against eventual Stanley Cup-winner Boston in 2011 – resulted in a series loss.
“I can tell you one thing: I’m not worried about Carey Price,” Therrien said.
That’s good, because he has enough to worry about with his power play.