A lot of cracks are starting to surface lately around this edition of the Montreal Canadiens that started with so much promise. Many saw tonight’s game against Ottawa as one that would go a long way towards showing what this team is made of. After a run of poor efforts, including the previous night’s loss to archrival Toronto, anything short of a dominant outing against the Sens would have to be cause for grave concern.
The first period started well with Nick Suzuki converting a Josh Anderson feed less than two minutes into the game. It was another goal off the rush for a team that hasn’t been rushing with much authority during the recent down streak. It was one of the few times more than one Habs player hustled to be an option to the puck carrier in recent games.
The joy was short-lived though as Alexander Romanov was next in line to give up his feet embarrassingly early and allow the opposing forward to easily toe-drag around his out-stretched stick and score. This time it was Drake Batherson who victimized the belly-flopping defender. Yet again in this one, any early momentum Montreal had was snuffed out by a careless penalty when Paul Byron got his stick up on Mike Reilly.
Special teams continue to be special for Montreal in the way OJ had a special relationship with his ex-wife. The lone Montreal power play of the first almost ended with a short-handed goal when Jeff Petry fired a ludicrously inaccurate shot that rimmed around the boards where Connor Brown beat a flailing Tyler Toffoli to get a breakaway. Jake Allen managed to shut the door and save further embarrassment for this power play.
The dominating second periods the Habs were routinely dropping on opponents early in the year have disappeared for the most part. They did hold a slight edge in play over the Senators in the middle period, but once again their momentum was interrupted by two more minor penalties. They were graced with a solitary power play of their own, but it was its usual ineffective self. As long as they think their only option on the power play is to feed the points, it will continue to be ineffective. This is especially true when you consider the deteriorating puck handling skills of the point men. Even control pucks and holding the zone appears to be a challenge for them now, so to expect high quality passes would be too much.
Late in the period, Jonathan Drouin was shoved into the glass face-first by Reilly and did not begin the third period on the bench, which is something to keep an eye on.
Early in the third period, Ottawa scored another weird goal that, much like their first one, bounced over Allen into the net when Josh Norris out-battled Shea Weber in the slot tip home Nikita Zaitsev’s point shot for a 2-1 lead.
With time running down and almost no momentum in the Montreal attack and even less urgency, Corey Perry made something out of nothing bursting down the wing and undressing Erik Gudbranson before deking Matt Murray to tie the game. It was a moment from an aging taxi squad forward that might save the team from further embarrassment. Though Jake Allen’s breakaway save on Batherson might be just as pivotal after this veteran team somehow allowed a clear cut break with just over a minute left in a tie game. To say they’re not mentally sharp right now might be the understatement of the year.
Heading to overtime, Habs fans must have visions of Danault, Weber and Chiarot dancing in their heads, so it must have been pleasing to see Suzuki, Anderson and Petry begin the period. Of course after two careless plays by Anderson led to glorious chances for the Sens, Julien had to be thinking he wished he had Danault out there. Jake Allen was forced to make two more breakaway saves in overtime in a desperate bid to keep his team alive against the division’s worst team.
The bubble was bound to burst though based on how loose Montreal was playing and it did, with Romanov caught on the ice far too long and relegated to a spectator as Brady Tkachuk, who was clearly his man waltzed out front for a shot before depositing his own rebound to win the game. It capped a game where there was again very little separating a league bottom-feeder from these Montreal Canadiens.
What I liked:
There was a bit more play in and around the Ottawa net tonight with more than one Montreal forward on scene. I’d like to see quicker releases when the puck finds them in prime positions, but being there is half the battle that they were unwilling to fight in recent weeks.
What I didn’t like:
How long before the coaching staff bans defencemen from leaving their feet to defend a rush? The attempts are getting worse each game and it is starting to cost them dearly on the scoreboard.
There is a fine line between a big, physical defenceman and a plodding, vulnerable defenceman. Lately, the Habs’ big four have been flirting with that line. The opponents are getting more and more comfortable cutting to the net and camping in the slot. This has to be an area Montreal is built to control.
This is not an intelligent team right now. They say the quickest way to improve your mental game is to use your legs. The two-way connection between Montreal’s legs and brains right now is defunct. The highest IQ players can slow the game down in order to make better decisions. Montreal slows the game down apparently to make worse decisions which is not pretty to watch.
Players that stood out for good reasons:
I have to give Corey Perry a nod here based solely on his timely dash to the net to get this game to overtime. But when 10 seconds of good hockey puts you at the top of this list, I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
Jake Allen obviously was the best Montreal Canadien by a long shot tonight. He allowed two awkward, almost unlucky goals, but he was forced to make far too many brilliant saves behind a defence that was touted as one of the league’s best going into this season.
Players who stood out for the wrong reasons:
He will be a great defender for many years, but this wasn’t Romanov’s best start. After being victimized on the Batherson goal, he was incredibly slow to read a rush later in the period and didn’t close on his man nearly quickly enough, forcing Allen to make a tougher save than should have been required.
There is a very concerning lack of mobility and quality plays with the puck emanating from the Weber-Chiarot pairing. The decline in play at this early stage of the season has to be causing some lost sleep for the brass, but it is not yet causing a loss of ice time or power play opportunities for the captain.
Toffoli’s play has dropped off mightily since about the 10 game mark. We knew the scoring pace and shooting percentage would drop, but the effort and accountability have as well. It seems at least twice a game right now he is putting himself in poor defensive position and compounding it by not skating to recover and putting his defence in a bad spot.
Most Habs fans would likely say they’re sick to death of following a team that starts hot and then seems to average 1.5 goals per game the rest of the way. The theory seems to always be that they play a playoff style which revolves around positioning and physicality. That may sound okay on paper, but the eye test shows a team that is poor with the puck and really isn’t effectively physical in their own zone where it counts the most. If they were, you wouldn’t see three or four hooking penalties a game, almost all of which are taken when the Montreal player is stationary and his check is not.
There are a few great misconceptions involving these Habs held by the media and opposing fans. That Brendan Gallagher is a dirty net-crasher who lacks skill is one. That Carey Price is this team’s only elite player is another. Perhaps the biggest one is that this is a fast team that’ll kill you with speed. If that’s the case, then they choose not to, because there is very little pace to their game most of the time and on the few occasions where they start to get their legs going, the passing game rarely supports it for long enough to sustain the energy. The bottom line is they have gone from a very fun team to watch to a, well, Claude Julien team.
One thing that appears to be a credit to this coaching staff is that they can run an effective training camp that prepares the squad to get an early jump on the season. This might explain why the team looked solid in the bubble after a long layoff and an abbreviated re-start camp. It surely also explains why this team has established a pattern of early season dominance followed by sloppy, uninteresting hockey through the dog days of the season.
All of this is indicative of a coaching staff that can make a plan but can’t deviate from that plan. The best battlefield generals could create a plan and then survey the field and make adjustments to keep any advantage they had. The worst ones stubbornly stick with a root philosophy regardless of how things are going. The more data piles up, the more it appears this coaching staff falls firmly in the latter category. We can blame the players all we want, but when offence dries up across the board, it’s the system. It’s also the players losing faith in a system they can’t force themselves to believe in. The main reason for this is it’s not a system that puts faith in their skills. It’s a system that homogenizes the group and assumes none of them are capable of asserting themselves on the opponent.
I’m sure Marc Bergevin did not expect to be feeling the heat this early in the season, but he filled his wagon with goods and then hitched it to a driver who has trouble finding the market. As a GM, you have to make evaluations of your coaching staff earnestly and determine whether the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. Bergevin will take some heat for undervaluing mobility and puck skills on defence, but it’s the trends with the coaching staff that have to be the concern. An inability to create even reasonable special teams over years, an inability to make any tactical adjustments to counter his opponent’s adjustments and a complete inability to make his bench and ice time management in relation to who is going on a given night are the three huge knocks on Julien that appear to be unfixable.
The sample sizes are growing and they’re telling a scary tale. After multiple head-to-head games against their two eastern rivals, the Habs have been the better team in only one game, and even then it was by a thin margin. Bergevin knows he pushed all of his chips to the center of the table this year, so the question will be whether he stays in the foxhole or asks the dealer for new cards first.