The Montreal Canadiens limped into the bye week with a 1-5-1 record in the month of February. It was the worst stretch of an uninspiring sequence of play since the new year, and enough to get the team’s head coach fired.
During the time off, the team got a jolt with the news that Claude Julien would be taking over the team, giving hope to beleaguered players and frustrated fans alike. The break finished with a media frenzy at practice on the final off-day, with many feeling confident about the team’s future prospects.
A 3-1 defeat in their first contest with their new bench boss brought those expectations back down to earth. Several concerns about the downturn in the team’s play remain, but there were a few things to be encouraged about.
The most lauded change from the new coach after his first practice with the team on Friday was that he had done what Michel Therrien had refused to do for most of the season and placed the offensively skilled Alex Galchenyuk on the top trio with Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov.
In the game, however, it was his weaker defensive play that was highlighted by the aggressive forechecking of the Winnipeg Jets, and his first few shifts were marred by turnovers and an unsuccessful attempt to strip Patrik Laine of the puck. That latter mishap required Carey Price to shoot out his glove and make up for his centre’s error.
Julien kept the original combination together after the defensive-zone gaffe, and the move paid dividends later in the frame. With the Habs in the zone, Galchenyuk’s long cross-ice pass found the stick of his captain, and Pacioretty sent the puck to the goalmouth where a pinching Andrei Markov was able to redirect it home and open the scoring.
The first period came to close with the Habs up 1-0 on the scoreboard, but trailing the Jets in shots by a 15-6 count.
With the Canadiens on the power play in the second, Nathan Beaulieu tried to stickhandle around his checker on his way into the zone, and had the puck knocked away by Joel Armia. The Jets player was free to head the other way on a breakaway, and made a series of dekes to fool Price and tie the game up while short-handed.
Not long after that power play came to an end, the Habs were awarded another, and Julien again tapped Beaulieu for a turn. He almost got his redemption for the turnover with a charge to the net, but his shot from another accurate cross-ice pass from Galchenyuk was turned aside by Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.
Just over a minute into the final frame, Dustin Byfuglien carried he puck down low against three Canadiens players before making an incredible one-handed move to get the puck behind his back and kick it to the front of the net. Mathieu Perreault was able to use the open space the full attention on Byfuglien has created to knock the puck behind Price to give the Jets the lead.
With the top trio having difficulty gaining the offensive zone at even strength to put their skills to use, Julien wiped the thin layer of dust off Therrien’s line blender in the second intermission and placed Galchenyuk between Artturi Lehkonen and Andrew Shaw for the third.
Galchenyuk looked much better in the final period, mostly because he needed to control the offence himself rather than trying to set up the highly skilled linemates he had on the top line, which is how he got into the most trouble in the first 40 minutes. He had a nice individual rush through three Jets defenders before Dustin Byfuglien was able to muscle him off his path to the net and keep him from scoring. He was also on the ice for a lengthy stretch in the Jets’ zone soon afterward that had the Habs putting on the pressure but unable to tie the game.
Price was able to hold his team close by robbing Laine with a glove save for the third time on the afternoon.
With the Habs netminder on the bench for an extra attacker, Laine was finally able to send a puck to the back of the cage, sealing the 3-1 win for the visiting side.
- Other than some flurries of offensive play (including an assist on the opening goal), Alex Galchenyuk’s first game under his second NHL coach went about as poorly as possible. He showed Claude Julien in less than one period of play why he hasn’t been able to be used consistently on the top trio against the opponent’s best players.
- The same could be said for Nathan Beaulieu, whose turnover led to the game-tying goal in the second period.
- The good news (if you’re a process-based follower of the team and not a results-based one) is that the defensive issues weren’t just limited to these two players who have received the most public scrutiny for their defensive play, but nearly every member in the lineup. It’s not just a few young players struggling who could be sheltered away from the danger and have their development limited as a result. There are team-wide, systemic issues that need to be addressed, and that will benefit rookie and veteran alike.
- You could argue (process-based thinking again) that this result was the perfect outcome for the new head coach to witness his first time in the field. Yesterday Julien mentioned tweaking things on the fly if the game wasn’t going the way he expected. After one contest, he knows he’s in for a complete overhaul of the way his players approach the game.