Canadiens undone by poor ‘puck management’ in Game 4 loss to Rangers

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Canadiens edged, Oilers embarrassed, Blue Jackets fend off eliminationOn Tuesday, New York Rangers boss Alain Vigneault stretched the definition to fit defencemen pinching in further up the ice to put pressure on the opposition and force turnovers.Essentially, it means whatever the coach says it means, and there’s no point trying to divine how it is the hockey world still somehow arrives at a shared understanding.Anyway, puck management was referenced a great deal after New York’s 2-1 defeat of the Montreal Canadiens in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series; the teams are now knotted at two victories each in the best-of-seven, and Game 5 is set for Thursday night in Montreal.The formulation was used by both Habs coach Claude Julien (short version: my team was bad at it) and by his good friend and rival Vigneault (condensed version: we were pretty good).Essentially, the Habs were undone by their propensity to give the puck to the other guys, particularly in the second period.But more generally, the crisp, tight, quick defensive play that Montreal used to claw back a Ranger lead in Game 2 and which allowed them to roll to a 3-1 win in Game 3 simply evaporated.This was not entirely their fault.“Sometimes when I stand here and answer questions, it’s as if there was only one team on the ice,” said a mildly exasperated Max Pacioretty, the Habs’ captain.It should be said he’s more put out at his own play; after scoring 35 goals and leading the team with 67 points, he has just one assist to show after four postseason games.He also shared part of the culpability for the Rangers’ winning goal after failing to stop Ryan McDonagh’s desperation attempt to keep the puck in the Montreal zone (which was the end result of a horrific turnover by Montreal defenceman Jordie Benn).“It wasn’t my best game, but I’ll be better,” he said.Julien, for his part, said “we’ll deal with it internally” – meaning he didn`t care to discuss it with reporters and would analyze the game footage to identify ways in which his top scorer can be more effective offensively.In other words, more tweaks are pending.All playoff series are tactical chess matches, and with the Rangers facing a must-win situation, new wrinkles were added to their game – and for good reason: They had lost six straight playoff contests on home ice and had no interest in tying the NHL record with seven, particularly if it meant going down 3-1 in the series.Vigneault inserted speedy rookie Pavel Buchnevich into the lineup and shuffled his lines, moving the swift-skating Michael Grabner and Chris Kreider onto different units.“It was important for us to play at a high pace … to do that you have to roll four lines and with that subtle little change we were able to do that,” he said.Vigneault also instructed his defencemen to force the issue further up the ice and to hit everything that moved.“Obviously their goal was to limit our speed … it’s up to us to battle through that,” said Pacioretty. It comes in handy when there is little of substance left to say. Now it’s a best of three, with two games in Montreal’s home barn.It’s close, and there can be no surprises: Each club is trying to play to its strengths, which are well-known and thoroughly analyzed.Thus the fuzzy, Newspeak-style language of hockey. “But we’re playing a very [good] team and they were at their best.”He added the solution is to return to the game plan of forcing New York’s defencemen to skate, and wear them down with a relentless forecheck, which seemingly went out the window when the egregious turnovers – from customarily reliable performers Andrei Markov, who gifted Jesper Fast the Rangers’ opening goal, and Benn – began piling up.Basically, the coming games will feature a contest of wills that will be fought at or near the blue lines.And Julien has demonstrated he has a few strategic surprises to deploy as well.In the second period he moved Alexander Radulov, whose assist on Torrey Mitchell’s first period goal was his team-leading sixth point of the playoffs, alongside centre Alex Galchenyuk and shifted right winger Andrew Shaw into the former’s slot with Pacioretty and Philip Danault.Mostly, it worked.For all the mistakes and poor management of the game – in Julien’s estimation that means everything from forcing passes (eight icing calls in the third period) to losing faceoffs to giveaways – the Habs had chances.There were a pair of breakaways in the first period from Shaw and Mitchell, but neither went in; Galchenyuk beat Lundqvist with a third-period shot but the puck dribbled wide; and Shea Weber hit the post with the Montreal net empty and 80 seconds to play.Indeed, the Habs only gave up five more high-danger scoring chances (13) than they recorded on Henrik Lundqvist, according to series is a curious match-up in that it could plausibly be 3-1 for either team.There is very little to separate the clubs – the Habs are a little better on the blue line, the Rangers are a little better up front. Hockey argot can be maddening to the uninitiated, mostly because it somehow manages to be both frustratingly amorphous and yet deeply specific in meaning.Consider, if you will, the idea of “puck management.”It can mean avoiding turnovers in certain areas of the ice – near the blue lines, say – or it can signify making short passes or chipping and retrieving pucks in specific zones.