After a 10-0 loss, it was expected that the Montreal Canadiens would turn in a much better effort when they got right back in the saddle on Saturday night, hosting the Philadelphia Flyers.
Andrei Markov’s first goal alleviates some pressure, and some doubts
Just over a minute in, it looked like the team was headed for a turnaround with a bit of offensive-zone time resulting in a goal from Markov. It ensured they at least wouldn’t be shut out for a second straight game, and gave them something to build upon.
It was Markov’s first of the season, and puts him on pace to hit his usual totals of 5-10 goals and 40+ points. He is quieting the fears that his effectiveness would disappear with the loss of P.K. Subban by his side, as he continues to perform quite well on the offensive side of the puck.
Greg Pateryn coming into his own
After struggling the get into the lineup in his first few seasons, Pateryn is becoming more comfortable now that he’s dressing for nearly every game. With that, the emergence of a surprising source of offensive ability has come to the fore. We saw him launch a rocket of a shot for a goal in the pre-season, and last night he recorded his first of the regular season — tying his career high from a year ago — by being in a high-slot position to get a shot away.
The goal will only serve to boost the confidence he has been gaining. He’s the top defenceman in terms of on-ice shot generation through the first 12 games of the season, and should start to contribute more to that area with some shots of his own.
The response to the 10-0 embarrassment
They came away with a victory, so on the surface is seems like a decent bounce-back. They were outplayed most of the night, and that’s not what you’d hope to see from a team that is supposedly now brimming with pride and character this season. But they did respond with a more involved effort than they normally have, it’s just that that’s not a good thing with this system, as I’ll explain next.
The defensive-zone coverage has gone off the rails
Early in the season, the Canadiens were playing a patient defensive game; staying in position, waiting for the opposition to take low-quality shots with the passing lanes shut down, and then retrieving the puck at the first available opportunity.
That system essentially concedes the possession battle (both in terms of shot attempts and time spent actually holding the puck) before the game even starts, but it was very effective through the first eight games.
In those games, how many great saves were the goalies forced to make? Carey Price’s name was barely mentioned through his first five outings. Al Montoya was able to get off to a 3-0-1 start while barely breaking a sweat.
Last night, Carey Price probably had to scramble across the crease to get to an open shooter more times than he had in all of his first six appearances combined. He hasn’t had to play such an athletic style in over a year, and that includes his time as a member of Team Canada in the best-on-best World Cup of Hockey tournament.
The problem is that the players in front of him — forwards and defencemen alike — have gotten away from what made their system efficient in the first place. They’re not facing up the ice trying to cut down passing lanes. They’re chasing the puck in their own end, worried too much about the puck carrier and not about the player left in open space for an easy goal as a result of their misplaced attention.
The poor play that began in the game versus the Toronto Maple Leafs a week ago has made the players try harder from an individual perspective in the defensive zone, and that’s the absolute worst thing that they could do in this defensive scheme.
Players were collapsing back to the crease at the first sign of offensive-zone pressure, trying to be the one to prevent the shot from getting through. With the best goaltender in the world, that strategy makes no sense. If they’re going to continue with this passive style of defence, they need to get back to focusing on preventing cross-ice passes, and leaving the goaltending to Price.
Andrew Shaw needs to be better
Touted as an energy guy, this period of poor play is exactly what a player like Shaw is supposed to bring a team out of. He should be in the face of the defencemen while the oppositon is on offence, and pressuring them into bad plays on the forecheck. Instead, he has been largely invisible so far this season, including during his copious time on the power play so far (currently fourth in five-versus-four ice time; above Alex Galchenyuk), and is on pace for a mere 20 points.
Alexander Radulov doesn’t know how to play poorly
Through this slump, one player has been untouched by the epidemic of poor execution, and that’s Radulov. He plays the same high-octane style no matter the opponent, no matter the score. He is easily the best free-agent signing of the off-season, and it’s entertaining to hear the surprise in the voice of the commentators who come in with an outdated view of the Habs’ newest star.
Outscoring their defensive woes
It can be seen as a bad thing that Montreal is getting enough offence to cover up most of their abysmal performances of late, but it does point to how skilled the 2016-17 version of the team is. They haven’t had this much offensively gifted talent in decades, and that ability is spread throughout the lineup; from Alex Galchenyuk at the top, through an obviously slumping Andrew Shaw in the middle six, to the surprisingly capable duo of Torrey Mitchell and Phillip Danault on the bottom trio.
They’re not getting many shots, and they’re also not going to score four or five goals a game, but they have the personnel to put three goals on the board any given night, and with Price in goal (and not having to look through a five-man screen in front of him), that’s all they need to do to win consitently.
Time to trust Daniel Carr
Mitchell and Danault have been very good, each with six points and a combined eight goals between them, but Brian Flynn is providing nothing that Daniel Carr doesn’t bring to the table. There’s no reason to sit him out game after game in favour of Flynn.
Last year, Carr proved himself to be a great asset at both ends of the ice, and has half as many points as Flynn so far, despite playing eight fewer games. It would be fun to see how good that fourth line could be with the injection of the two-way threat of Carr.
... and Artturi Lehkonen
Hopefully the injury that held him out of action in the third period isn’t too serious (and since he was on for a goal for in his last shift, it doesn’t seem to be), because Lehkonen has been playing with the top offensive players and looking good in his complementary role there. He nearly scored his third goal but for a last-millisecond deflection off the toe of Michal Neuvirth last night.
When the team draws a power play, however, Lehkonen is the first one to lose his spot beside his regular linemates in favour of Shaw. We haven’t had a chance to see what Lehkonen can do with the open space on the power play, but we do know he has a knack for getting into the proper position for a loose-puck recovery, to automatically rotate back to the point when the defenceman pinches in, and to get into position to give a teammate a passing lane. Those skills are important ones to have on a five-man power-play unit, and he should be given a chance to show what he can do.
A little less conversation, a little more action, please
Now up to four bad showings in a row, it’s time to figure this thing out. Max Pacioretty said the team shouldn’t be happy about how they played in the 3-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday. The team responded with one of the worst defeats in franchise history. After that game in Columbus, Michel Therrien said that he wasn’t surprised by the result, as the coaching staff saw it coming with their recent play. Pacioretty said following their performance against the Blue Jackets that they would “see what type of group we have,” and what they have is a group that was handily outplayed and lucky to escape with two points versus the Flyers in last night’s contest.
While it’s encouraging that the team isn’t happy with their play even if they are still racking up wins, it’s a useless sentiment if the proper steps aren’t taken to correct it. Now is the time for the coaching staff to look at what they really have to work with and decide if the system that has been in place for the first month of the season is the one they trust to keep them in contention for a Stanley Cup, or if they need to tweak or scrap the whole thing. One benefit that the cushion at the top of the standings in the early part of the season has is allowing for some experimentation with the setup.
The passive defensive style does have its pros, and the first eight games are evidence that it can work, but it can also break down when an opposing team brings a constant pressing attack, as we saw in the first game of this slide versus the Leafs.
The team has the goaltending to allow for a more aggressive scheme, though not as many defencemen to play an effective transition game as in years past, with only Jeff Petry and Nathan Beaulieu as true puck-movers among the current group. The forward corps is stacked with all-around players who can help out a less-mobile defence and transition into an offensive rush, but not while playing in the middle of the ice and away from the boards to prevent shots from getting through.
There isn’t much time to work on things between now and their next game on Tuesday night versus the Boston Bruins, but some changes need to be made in how the team is currently playing if they want to continue this run of success.