Claude Julien was quick to quash any speculation that there would be major changes forthcoming for the Montreal Canadiens after a fifth consecutive defeat on Tuesday night, saying there was no need to panic, and pointing to the specific areas the team needed to improve upon.
True to his word, the lineup that he submitted for the game versus the New Jersey Devils wasn’t drastically different from the group that was soundly defeated by the Boston Bruins. The only personnel change was a night off for Cale Fleury to allow Brett Kulak to return. Nick Cousins and Charles Hudon swapping lines in the bottom six was the only change among the forwards, while Carey Price was right back on the horse after one of the worst outings of his career.
The crowd seemed a bit apprehensive to start the game, not really knowing what to expect from the team. Their reaction to the opening shifts was a bit subdued, but it helped that Montreal spent much of that time in the attacking end.
Just over seven minutes into the game, we saw exactly what those in attendance had been preparing for. A pinch from Ben Chiarot up the wall in the offensive zone allowed a two-on-one to form for the Devils, and like many of the chances against over the past few games, this one ended up in the net. A reactionless audience watched on as Nikita Gusev sent a pass through Shea Weber, which was one-timed into the net by Blake Coleman.
Fortunately for those who’d paid for a ticket expecting to be entertained, the Canadiens came out on the next shift and got right back to work in the offensive zone. Brendan Gallagher just got the puck on net, and that proved to be the only touch the Habs needed to tie it up as the Devils’ best intentions knocked the puck into their own net.
Thirty-six seconds later, the same Devils line that had generated the first goal on a two-on-one made the same thing happen in the same way. This time it was Brett Kulak getting caught with a forward behind him, and the two-on-one saw a pass from Gusev to Blake Coleman this time, with the same result.
The teams traded goals in the second period as well. Up first was Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was given enough time and space to collect the puck while pointed toward the corner, spin himself back to face the net, then release a wrist shot to beat Mackenzie Blackwood from the slot.
As has been the case all too often in recent games, the Canadiens couldn’t follow up a goal with a strong series of shifts to build some cofidence. Changing on the fly less than two minutes later, the puck was in the possession of the Devils when the defence pairings made their switch, and that resulted in a breakaway as the blue-liners coming on the ice had to take a diagonal path to cut off the lane, and Miles Wood had an uncontested shot to beat Price.
That meant it was Montreal’s turn to score, and the 3-3 goal came via a great shot from Joel Armia. We saw how good his release can be at the beginning of the season when he was scoring at will, but it had been a while since we saw it. Rushing up the left side as Victor Mete carried the puck up the right, he saw a pass to the slot carom off the intended target right into his path. He collected it, made a slight adjustment to gain some more torque, and blistered a shot to the far side of the net.
When it was New Jersey’s turn to get their goal, they weren’t able to get an odd-man rush as Montreal had three players back. Fortunately for them, those defenders didn’t really do much of anything to stop them, and all three attackers got a shot on Price in the span of about a second, with the third one finally going in.
A trend of the Canadiens’ defensive play this season has been allowing goals in the last minute of periods. It seemed there was no way that was going to happen to end the second frame with just a few second on the clock and four Canadiens players back. Nevertheless, the two Devils opposing them got around those wearing the red shirts, and were only denied a fifth goal by an incredible save from Price.
Well, that fifth goal was delayed at least. It took until after the eight-minute mark of the third until they scored it. It was another two-on-one, but this time Damon Severson decided to shoot the puck himself rather than pass it across, and the shot beat Price high to the blocker side. A couple of stick smashes from the goaltender followed, one as he headed to the bench for a new piece of equipment.
That could have been the dagger, but the Finnish contingent wasn’t done netting goals. It wasn’t a nice snipe like his compatriots had managed, but Artturi Lehkonen showed good urgency as he followed up a saved shot to bang in the rebound and keep the Habs in it.
They didn’t get any closer, however, as they went 10 minutes without scoring. The Devils scored into the empty net to make it 6-4, extending the losing streak for Montreal that they started back on Noveber 16 to six games.
- The empty-net goal was scored on a two-on-oh, which is understandable given that the Habs were down a goal without much time on the clock, and needed the defencemen to take some chances in a bid to score. The first two goals for the Devils also came with the defence trying to play offence, and that made no sense whatsoever. Neither Chiarot nor Kulak needed to jump up the boards in the opening minutes of the game to try to keep an offensive sequence going — especially knowing how rough the team has been on defence. They simply needed to retreat and live another day. The fourth goal against was scored because Mete tried to stay right in front of his man as the play came up the ice, and two Devils raced up the opposite side with just one defender to try to stop them. They were all poor decisions, but there was a pattern of aggressive play to them that seems to be instruction on how to prevent rush opportunities at the opponent’s end of the ice — instructions that directly led to the loss.
- All season long we’ve seen players not in proper position to defend the slot, which has been especially bad on a penalty kill that ranks 30th in the NHL. The new wrinkle of allowing so many odd-man rushes is making it impossible for the team to limit chances that are not only from the high-danger areas, but breakaways and two-on-ones that serve as the greatest opportunities you can get in the sport. It should be simple enough to communicate what you need from your players, and take steps when those plans aren’t executed, but nothing is working. Something more drastic than a few post-game comments about needing to be better defensively and swapping in a different player on the third pairing needs to be done if the team is going to break these disastrous habits they’ve developed.