After an hour delay to ensure the Oilers were fit to play in light of Jesse Puljujarvi being added to the COVID protocol list earlier in the day, the Habs and Oilers were allowed to resume hostilities. Fortunately, just 24 hours earlier the Habs were able to practice keeping two metres distance from their opponents, so they were prepared for the risk.
Of note off the top were some much needed line changes to try to wake up the slumbering forward group. Phil Danault retained his slot alongside Brendan Gallagher, but they were joined on the left side by Tyler Toffoli while regular linemate Tomas Tatar dropped down to accompany the Finnish connection with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia. On paper, the switch makes a lot of sense as both Toffoli and Tatar have looked subpar over the last week and their skill sets seem to match their new lines; at least in theory.
In the early going in this one, it was clear both teams were going to be afforded far more space than was available one night earlier against Toronto. One aggravating trend with the Habs is how easily they get away from tactics that are working; most notably the forecheck. In the first five minutes of this one, the forecheck was leading to a number of turnovers by the Oilers defence, but they slowly eased off as the period progressed allowing Edmonton to get their skating game going.
It’s not often you can point at Nick Suzuki as the weak link on his line, but in the first period he failed to finish on two brilliant feeds from Jonathan Drouin and his poorly executed neutral zone dump ricocheted to the Oilers. On the counter attack, Josh Archibald slipped behind Joel Edmundson and connected with Jujhar Khaira who sniped it short-side past Jake Allen. One thing the Habs defenders have struggled with is the basic concept of taking away the pass on 2-on-1’s and Jeff Petry was the latest victim on the goal.
Throughout the first part of the game, Montreal’s forwards took turns failing to pick up the trailer on Edmonton forays into the offensive zone. Suzuki, Danault and Gallagher all were caught spectating as the Oilers waltzed down the middle lane. It wasn’t until later in the period when Jake Evans showed the bench how it’s done by communicating with his defencemen through the neutral zone and took a great angle to the open Oiler forward on the left side.
As the second period began, it had to be weighing on the Habs that their track record playing from behind is not good, but the hill got higher early after an ugly clearing attempt by Shea Weber hit Danault and trickled behind Allen to give Darnell Nurse his sixth credited goal of the season. These are the type of sloppy mistakes Montreal has been making routinely the last few games and it is starting to cost them.
Remember when the second periods were fun and dominant stretches for these Habs? Seems like a distant memory now, doesn’t it? The last few middle periods have looked like exhibition games where the vets were trying to shake off some summer rust without getting injured. When Mike Smith and this Oilers defence can stifle you without any dangerous chances, it’s time to re-evaluate your game plan.
For those who were expecting some pushback in the third period, unless you consider Josh Anderson taking a double minor for roughing that led to Tyson Barrie’s power play goal to fit that category, there wasn’t much. That was, in fact, the second Edmonton power play in the first five minutes of the period after Danault was whistled for interference.
There are those who won’t like the officiating on a night where the power play opportunities were one-sided in favour of the opponent yet again, but there is a healthy dose of looking in the mirror that is required when you play an entire game while drawing just one penalty. Not surprisingly, it was #71 for Montreal who drew it.
I find games can almost always be summarized by a single symbolic play if you look closely. Tonight’s was midway through the third when Montreal had full control in the Edmonton end when Romanov found Tatar high in the middle of the Oiler zone with no defender within a country mile. Instead of moving and shooting or finding a pass, he backed up towards the far boards at the left point and proceeded to get a lateral pass tipped. Taking a reasonable situation and choosing to rapidly make it far less dangerous and then cap it off with a harmless and poor decision pretty much epitomizes the way the Habs played this game.
What I liked:
Through the first part of the game, Montreal tried to re-establish a forecheck game and the forwards had their legs going.
Any coach or fan will tell you that when things are not going well and a team is sleepy, you just want to see some battle and passion. So I’ll give Brendan Gallagher a small tip of the cap for his exhausting battles with Slater Koekkoek and Evan Bouchard in front of the Edmonton goal.
What I didn’t like:
Montreal’s entire offensive scheme involves the periphery. They attempt to establish control on the wall and the primary play they look for is the rim-around to the far point, hoping to buy space. The trouble with this scheme is that they don’t have premier puckhandling and shooting defenders, so it often is banged harmlessly back down the wall. It also allows a muscle memory to set in where players aren’t even considering playing it to the net front and all available resources are being directed to the boards to make themselves options. There’s a reason the walls are open, and it’s because those aren’t danger areas and are where the opposition would like you to be when in their zone. It’s a false measure of success for coaches who like the possession and zone time, but it rarely results in Grade A chances.
There were also a few too many net front scrambles where the hulking Montreal defencemen did not bury anyone in the ice and let the goaltender battle for far too long.
There was an awful lot to populate this section, or should I say a lot of awful? Let’s be truthful though, it has been at least four games and arguably six in a row of uninspired hockey with very little entertainment value.
Players that stood out for good reasons:
Josh Anderson and Jonathan Drouin had some fire early with Anderson winning his races and battles and Drouin exhibiting elite vision to grant his teammates good looks.
At the risk of starting to sound like a Jake Evans’ fanboy, I continue to be impressed with his compete level and high IQ. I’m not sure how much longer these games can continue before he and Danault switch spots at least for a trial.
Players who stood out for the wrong reasons:
Nick Suzuki had a very un-Suzuki like outing with some lazy plays, losing defensive awareness at times and looking decidedly not slick on his few good shooting opportunities.
It has been a tough stretch for Ben Chiarot with a continuance of the careless penalties and some poor reads throughout the game.
I could probably find a few others, but have to check first to make sure they were dressed. Did anyone see a #40 out there tonight?
A troubling pattern with the Montreal Canadiens in the last 24 months or so is how often they play nothing like how Julien says they want to play. He speaks often of close puck support from the forwards to give the defencemen options leaving the zone, but often the closest option is a 20- or 30-foot pass through traffic. He also talked a lot about having a defencemen jump into the rush as a trailing option. You can count a dozen times a game where a puck is checked off a forward’s stick toward the point and the defence haven’t even crossed center.
For a coach that has built a career on conservative, defensive structure who values a large veteran presence on his team, this is a team that often does a surprisingly careless job of puck management. There is absolutely no benefit to emphasizing that style and philosophy if your team proves to not be adept at executing it. Too often under his tenure, the starts to season are hot with all kinds of talk of speed and depth, but within a month they lose pace and are a mistake-prone team with no net presence in the offensive zone.
I realize that after a hot start and a few bad games it is peak Montreal to start questioning the coach’s future, but there is a lot about this staff that harkens back to that old Einstein quote on insanity. He mused that it is defined as doing the same things over and over and hoping for different results. I’m sure most Habs fans feel like they’ve read this book again and again and it’s not exactly a page-turner. There is no doubt Julien has his strengths and is a smart hockey man, but his failings are constant failings and that has to be a concern for Mr. Bergevin who has done everything possible to remove his coach’s excuses.
A rough patch is expected and an 8-4-2 record is not the time to panic. What is extremely clear though is that there isn’t a lot more rope left for the underperformers in a short season. We’re looking at you Mr. Danault, Mr. Tatar, Mr. Julien and Mr. Muller.