The Montreal Canadiens did not win their hard-fought battle with the Boston Bruins on Tuesday night.
But in a season where the playoffs are out of reach and there’s nothing left to play for but pride, one line emerged as the spark that set the tone for the game.
From the very first shift, Rafael Harvey-Pinard, Alex Belzile, and Michael Pezzetta led by example, playing the type of hockey that put an onus on giving an honest effort, not to mention solid on-ice results.
Their ice time was limited but incredibly encouraging.
They controlled 100 percent of the shots at 5v5 (5-0), creating scoring chances thanks to their tireless forecheck, which, in turn, limited the Bruins’ ability to build momentum through the neutral zone.
Starting On The Right Foot
Belzile won an important faceoff in the neutral zone, but the most important aspect of their first shift was fierce forecheck, with Harvey-Pinard (F1) and Michael Pezzetta (F2) pressuring the Bruins’ defence.
They were pinned in the defensive zone for a healthy amount of time, which is quite a feat considering the Bruins are far and away the best team in hockey and happen to be fantastic in transition.
Keep in mind, a controlled exit is much more likely to lead to a controlled entry into the offensive zone, which, in turn, is twice as likely to lead to a shot or a goal.
The fourth line didn’t just slow down the Bruins’ transition, they stopped it in its tracks. They were forced to dump the puck into the offensive zone, which quickly led to a scoring chance for Nick Suzuki and the Canadiens’ top line.
Twice As Nice
The following shift by the fourth line was much of the same. Both Harvey-Pinard and Pezzetta displayed strong positioning in the neutral zone, which led to a chaotic scene that forced the Bruins to regroup in their zone.
Harvey-Pinard’s dump-in was a little weak, but to his credit, he immediately applied pressure as the F1, pushing the Bruins’ defence behind their net.
What’s more, thanks to the fourth line’s affinity for clogging the neutral zone, the Bruins were forced to relinquish control of the puck, sending it deep into the Canadiens’ zone, where Harvey-Pinard was the first player on the scene.
Not only did he slow down the Bruins’ elite offence, but he also provided the type of support that’s necessary to clear the zone with control of the puck.
Shortly after Belzile, who also provided crucial support for the breakout, drove the puck up the ice, Kirby Dach came very close to scoring.
Harvey-Pinard is often described as Lavallagher, seeing as he’s a tenacious forward with a diminutive frame that does not hesitate to engage in physical battles against much bigger opponents.
And while there’s no denying Brendan Gallagher has done the same in the NHL, it’s important to note that Harvey-Pinard deserves his own identity as a fantastic grinder, who also possesses a skillset that allows him to take advantage of his tireless work ethic.
He’s more than just an AHL version of Gallagher.
We’re dealing with a very limited sample size, but as it stands, only one other player has higher relative expected goals for percentage than Harvey-Pinard.
More on that later.
His versatility and vision were on full display midway through the first period.
Following a broken line change, both Dach and Harvey-Pinard anticipated a smart pinch by Jordan Harris, placing themselves in the perfect position to take advantage of the defensive confusion caused by the rookie defenceman.
However, you’ll note Harvey-Pinard played it a little safe, opting to stay on the far side of Harris, to ensure the puck would not end up on a Bruins stuck, which would have led to an odd-man advantage.
Once he sees Harris is winning his puck battle, Harvey-Pinard quickly jumps ahead of Harris, giving Dach an outlet pass option, and almost setting up Evgenii Dadonov for an easy goal.
What’s more, Harvey-Pinard maintained his strong forecheck, pinning his opponent on the wall, and keeping the Bruins 200 feet away from the Canadiens’ net.
A stick tap goes out to Dadonov, who has played quite well recently, for also giving an honest effort on the forecheck.
The Bruins eventually drive the puck up the ice, but they could not build any speed, which led to a loose puck, resulting in an offside.
Going back to their on-ice results, by controlling 100 percent of the shots during their shifts, the fourth line didn’t just provide crucial energy, they were far and away the Canadiens’ best trio.
Not only did they have great on-ice results, but their hard work also led to scoring chances for other lines, which is particularly important given how many Canadiens forwards are currently on the injured reserve.
This may just be an audition due to circumstances but for players like Belzile, who leads all Canadiens players in relative expected goals percentage (+39.7%!), it’s much more.
It’s a rare chance to show he has the type of work ethic that could serve a team like the Canadiens quite well.
And there’s no doubt Belzile, along with Harvey-Pinard, is providing exactly what the team needs most as they endure a difficult stretch of the schedule.
The same can be said for Pezzetta, who has shown great chemistry alongside the two call-ups. His re-invigorated attitude was on full display during Harvey-Pinard’s first goal of the season.
His one-handed pass would have featured on every single highlight show if his last name was Crosby or McDavid.
Harvey-Pinard’s goal tonight, what an effort by Habs legend Pezzetta pic.twitter.com/RZ196D8wWB
— Habs Fan TV (@habsfantv_) January 22, 2023
Trust The Process
The fourth line’s final shift of the first period epitomized the value of hard work.
Not just hard work, but smart work as well.
There’s little value to flailing around the rink, chasing opponents who have already passed the puck off to a teammate.
Not only did Belzile support his defence, which led to an opportunity for Edmundson to clear the zone, but Harvey-Pinard also engaged in yet another fantastic forecheck, which was the catalyst to a great scoring chance for Belzile, who was half an inch away from scoring his first NHL goal.
10/10, No Notes
You expect the fourth line to provide energy, but in this case, they’re providing more than just energy.
They’re forcing teams to retreat and re-evaluate their options, burning their opponents’ precious energy in the process.
It’s similar to the impact Jake Evans had in the games prior to his unfortunate injury.
They’re also limiting scoring chances from elite teams like the Bruins while creating chances of their own.
You simply cannot ask for more from a group of players who are given limited opportunities to prove their worth.