The Habs Gave Away The Series In The Name Of Toughness

Illustration for article titled The Habs Gave Away The Series In The Name Of Toughness

This was a game the Canadiens 100 percent needed to win, so of course they handed major and crucial minutes to the league's single worst defenseman—all in the pursuit of toughness, naturally—and watched as he gave the game away.


That old saying about how you're not really in trouble in a playoff series until you lose a home game has certainly held true for the bulk of the NHL's history, and Montreal had already dealt the Bruins such a blow in Boston. Last night the Habs had the ability to send the series back to TD Garden with a 3-1 lead over the heavily-favored and much superior Bruins; to strike a death blow, more or less.

Canadiens coach Michel Therrien's plan for doing so was apparently to rely more heavily on physicality in these two games in Montreal. Boston, after all, is a team that prides itself on bringing a hard hat and lunchpail to work every day. Toughness, more so than anything else in the whole world, is their hallmark. They talk a lot about bruising, laborious, annoying hockey being what's necessary to get them "emotionally engaged" in most games. When the playoffs roll around, their insistence on such play is near-religious.

The interesting thing about that is that the Bruins don't need to be that way: They're one of the most talented teams in the league in terms of driving the play forward and putting the puck in the net, and in turn they are arguably the best defensive club in hockey as well. The 11 goals Montreal scored across the first three games of the series is atypical to an alarming extent, so much so that people in Boston started worrying about whether the team needed to get back to basics and do a little more hitting and shot-blocking (i.e. things that involve not-having the puck) as a means of dialing themselves back in.

That's what makes Montreal's decision to lean on toughness — via the grim visage of Douglas Murray in particular — so curious. They've dissected the Bruins defense and put a shocking number of pucks behind Tuukka Rask in a way no other teams really have over the last few years. They've done it by exploiting Boston's two weaknesses: Refusing to physically engage — this is positively enraging to the Bruins — and using their speed. The Bruins are a lot of things, but mobile on the back end isn't really one of them, and so all those breakaway goals the Habs have scored in this series had, through three games, really been the difference. Why try to beat the Bruins at their own game when you're beating them with yours?

Murray is good at one thing: Hitting. It's because he's 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, and you know that's how big he is because it's repeated literally every time he's mentioned on a television broadcast. There's nothing else to say about him. He's big and physical and slow and an awful skater and unskilled and big and physical and almost useless out there and also big and physical. That he's been in the league as long as he has is entirely due to the fact that he happens to be a very large man. Under no circumstances should any coach play him in a playoff game of this gravity, especially when all he can do is the exact opposite of what worked for his team literally two days earlier.

How bad is Murray? In his last three seasons, he has a combined 12 points, two of which were goals. But lots of defensive defensemen post low point totals, so maybe his possession numbers are still pretty strong, right? Last night he got almost 14 minutes of ice time at even strength, and during that time, his team attempted just four shots. The Bruins attempted 20. One of which was the overtime game-winner scored by Matt Fraser that tied the series and allowed Boston to climb back into the series that, if things were equitable for poor Carey Price, would be a game from being over. Take a look at that final shift to see Murray kind of floating around his own zone in a wide-eyed mixture of confusion and horror, then stick around to the end to see Fraser beat him to the loose puck that was poked into the back of the net, despite the fact that he's standing in Fraser's way. Being 6-foot-3 and 240 doesn't help when you have no idea what you're doing.

But you can't really blame Murray for the sequence, because everyone knows exactly what he is. You have to blame Therrien, who had him out in overtime against Fraser, Loui Eriksson, and Carl Soderberg, who'd been abusing the Habs defense to the tune of a collective corsi share north of 70 percent. That is to say, when they were on the ice, the puck was in the Montreal zone, and if you're Therrien, the last thing on earth you should also want in the Montreal zone along with the puck is a 240-pound anchor in a red sweater.


Despite his general uselessness and his being at fault for the only goal scored in the entire game, Murray somehow still earned praise for the performance:


It's not like Therrien didn't have other options. Even if you're playing Murray exclusively for his size (and you absolutely should not do that), the Habs have better options in this regard. Take, for example, 22-year-old Jarred Tinordi, a former first-round pick who's still growing into his game (and his 6-foot-6 frame), but is not a disaster waiting to happen every time he comes over the boards, and that he wasn't used is likely down to his lack of experience rather than his being a worse option than Murray.

Murray's corsi share in the game, was 16.7 percent, and it's nearly impossible to be that bad. But perhaps to keep things fair, Claude Julien likewise insisted on giving regular shifts to Shawn Thornton, who is similarly untalented (a 25 percent corsi share on the night in eight minutes at even strength). While no one in the entire NHL is likely to be as abject in this regard as Murray, Thornton at least gives him a run for his money, and seems to serve more as a highly-paid mascot than a hockey player in whom Julien has much trust. To that end, he got just three shifts after the start of the third period. Murray, meanwhile, pulled six, plus that one in overtime when he got abused for the game-winner.


These are guys who have no business being in games of this magnitude, because they clog up roster spots which should rightly go to players who can actually play. Julien, at least, has some prudence about the deployment of such a player. But that he's in the lineup at all remains puzzling. Because the only thing Thornton does well at this point is fight, and no one fights in the playoffs. So why have him dress at at all? Well, he does come up with some good motivational strategies, like telling his team to score enough goals to win.

There are guys all over the league like this, who have jobs despite a wholesale lack of skill, and who are going to continue taking roster spots from actual hockey players for years to come. They're "glue guys" who are "good in the room" and give the team "identity" that they would otherwise lack. (It's not entirely clear, why "really skilled team that wins all the time and maximizes its roster's usefulness" is not a good identity.)


Thornton fulfills that insatiable Boston need for a physical identity in a way that, say, Jordan Caron would not. And they're going to keep chasing the feeling his presence provides, for good or ill, as long as they keep winning. Why Montreal, or any other team, would give the them what they want in this regard is unclear, but going back home tied 2-2, the Bruins must be glad for the help.

Ryan Lambert is a columnist for Puck Daddy, among other places. His email is here and his Twitter is here.