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Habs' commitment to 'D' key to their success

by Arpon Basu
As the Montreal Canadiens made their way to the Eastern Conference Final last spring and began this season as one of the League's top teams, the players often have mentioned the system of coach Jacques Martin as a reason for that success.

Critics, however, preferred to pin all the credit on the goalies playing behind that system -- Jaroslav Halak last spring, and Carey Price this season.

Well, those critics will be pleased to know that they are right -- at least partially.

"The goalie stops the puck," defenseman Jaroslav Spacek told when asked to provide the philosophical basis of Martin's defensive scheme. "That's one of the most important things. If he doesn't stop the puck, then you can play any defense you want and it won't matter."

That obviously is true, but there is much more going on with the Canadiens defensively than simply riding a hot goalie. It was true last spring, even though Halak regularly was bombarded with 40-plus shots a game, and it remains true this season.

"We were giving up 50 shots, or even more, but they were mostly from the outside," Spacek said. "That's where Jaro, and now Price, will have success. We know he can make that stop. We have to make sure there are no second and third chances. We keep the shooters on the perimeter."

In order to do that, there is a basic principle the Canadiens adhere to religiously, one that makes perfect sense but which requires extreme discipline to execute.

"It's five guys everywhere," forward Mathieu Darche said. "When we look at the video, we want to see five guys in the picture. It's not as much of a system as it is putting the team ahead of the individual. You want five guys on the attack and five guys back. Ask anybody -- it's tough to go through five guys."

It's a sound theory, but it's one every player on the team must buy into in order for it to be successful, particularly the forwards.

Martin often points to "back pressure" when discussing a particularly strong defensive performance, and those performances have come pretty often thus far as Montreal enters Tuesday's games second in the League in goals-against per game.

In a highly technical sense, "back pressure" means a lot more to the Canadiens than simple backchecking.

The forwards hustling back to defend their end has a ripple effect on how Montreal's defensemen counter the rush coming towards them.

In the first round of last spring's playoffs, Josh Gorges often was matched on the same side of the ice as Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin. Gorges largely was able to neutralize Ovechkin's effectiveness off the rush by pressuring him as soon as he crossed the blue line and cutting off his pet move -- a quick deke toward the middle of the ice and letting go of his lethal wrist shot from the high slot.

The result? Ovechkin was limited to 1 goal over the final three games as the Canadiens erased a 3-1 series deficit to win in seven.

"The fact that I'm going to say this kind of bothers me, because I don't want to give any credit to forwards when we're talking about defense, but I think it honestly is the fact that we track back so hard," Gorges said, wincing as the words left his mouth. "As a defenseman, you know that you can stand up in the neutral zone and force the other team to make some sort of a play when they don't want to, and even if the puck gets behind you the forwards are coming back to pick it up."

Ask any forward in the NHL -- or anywhere, really -- and they'll tell you it's much more difficult to motivate yourself to hustle back to your own end than it is when there's a 2-on-1 developing toward the opposing goal.

But the Canadiens forwards do it without complaint and to great success, and if they don't, it's not necessarily Martin that will be in their ear on the bench.

"The forwards have to hold each other accountable to that," Darche said. "If you start deviating, you don't want to come to the bench and have players telling you to wake up. Our coaches prepare us well, but the biggest pressure for a player is the other players. You know that if you play selfishly, someone will be right in your face."

The system is very taxing, because forwards are expected to come back deep in their own zone while defensemen are expected to pinch often to maintain possession in the offensive zone. That means, more often than not, players are covering 200 feet of ice nearly every shift.

"It's a pretty basic system, it's a 1-2-2 in the neutral zone and come with one or two (players) on our forecheck depending on the situation," center Jeff Halpern said. "But I think it's more about a commitment on the part of the team to work hard in that system. Most systems can have success, but it's important how guys are supporting each other in that plan."

"When we look at the video, we want to see five guys in the picture. It's not as much of a system as it is putting the team ahead of the individual. You want five guys on the attack and five guys back. Ask anybody -- it's tough to go through five guys." -- Mathieu Darche

On the odd occasion the Canadiens have not followed the plan, it's been glaringly evident.

For instance, in a 5-3 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers last week the Canadiens committed a number of turnovers resulting from the forwards and defensemen playing too far apart, and four of those turnovers wound up in the Montreal net.

Martin was about as irate as you'll see him after that game.

"I expect players to play within the system," Martin said after that game. "When we have good support, when we work, when we have five in the picture, we're very effective. When we don't, we're not."

The system takes a different shape once teams set up in the Canadiens' zone, but the same principle applies. All five players pack together to defend an area that resembles home plate, one that stretches from each goalpost diagonally out to the faceoff dots, then up to the top of the circles and across.

If teams are willing to shoot from outside this area the Canadiens are more than happy to let them, but everyone has to be committed to trying to block the shot, and if it gets through, to sweep away the rebounds.

In last season's playoffs the Canadiens finished first in blocked shots, followed by Stanley Cup finalists Philadelphia and Chicago, who each had the benefit of playing an extra round. Heading into Tuesday's games, Montreal is seventh in the League in blocked shots this season.

The Canadiens have been so effective in their defensive-zone coverage, Price has quipped that he felt like he was "taking up space" in the crease, his job seeming so easy to him.

"When I'm out of position, we've got guys that are willing to take one in the face for me," Price said. "It makes a big difference."

The most glaring example of how the Canadiens have embraced Martin's system is their goals for and against ratio at 5-on-5, which was a major weakness last season but has turned into a statistic of strength. Montreal was 22nd in the League last season but has climbed to sixth this season, scoring 1.21 goals for every goal-against at 5-on-5 play, a sign to Martin that the Canadiens are turning into the defensive rock he wants them to be.

But while he's encouraged, he's not entirely satisfied.

"Overall, as a team, we've been pretty good when you look at our goals-against, when you look at our penalty killing, and we've really improved 5-on-5, which we wanted to do," Martin said. "I think we're in the right direction, but we need to be working together."
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