There’s a famous Russian hockey song with a chorus that goes:
The ice squad keeps on the hard fight.
We believe in the courage of the desperate boys.
Only real men play hockey.
A coward doesn’t play hockey!
A coward doesn’t play hockey!
Maybe Alexander Romanov can teach the Montreal Canadiens that song right now, because the Habs played like they were scared of the Ottawa Senators Tuesday night — and no amount of questionable officiating can paper over that fact.
We discussed the possibility that the Canadiens, in their zeal to “keep things simple,” would default to a “spray-and-pray” approach in their next game. Lo and behold, while not as bad as it could have been, the Habs launched, by my count, 24 shot attempts from beyond the faceoff dots; almost half of the 57 attempts they mustered overall. Worse, of these 24, 13 missed the net altogether, meaning that they yielded nothing productive — no save, no rebound, no tip opportunity, nothing.
While the Habs’ affection for point shots might be predictable, their attitude on defence was unforgiveable. Faced with a Senators team that has demonstrated a fearless, possibly reckless, aggression, the Canadiens went into a shell. If we look at where the Senators took their farthest shots from, it wasn’t from the blue line, but rather several feet in. The Canadiens, in bunkering down and protecting the slot, essentially yielded the majority of the offensive zone to a Senators team more than willing to take advantage of the extra space.
This even-strength passivity bled over (or perhaps bled from?) special-teams play. When Erik Brännström scored his first NHL goal, he wasn’t sitting at the blue line. Rather, the Canadiens defensive alignment let him wander in almost halfway to the faceoff dots.
We also discussed the disaster that was Sunday night’s overtime, so when Tuesday culminated in a second opportunity at the extra frame, the Canadiens had a chance to put in a better showing. On the one hand, they certainly played better, managing to generate some very good scoring chances, focusing more on possession play, and not hanging their goaltender out to dry nearly as much. On the other hand, there was still a pervasive cautiousness in how the Habs approached three-on-three, something most evident through how their defencemen were deployed.
Claude Julien started the frame with Jeff Petry. Ben Chiarot came over the boards next. Then Petry again. Then Chiarot again. Finally, Petry hit the ice to close the period. No sign of either Brett Kulak or Alexander Romanov, two defenders with infinitely more capability to take advantage of the open space than Chiarot.
That said, the Canadiens did show something in fighting back from a 3-1 deficit, but even this accomplishment led to perhaps their most egregious offence of the night. Tied at three midway through the second period, having escaped a prolonged penalty kill with only one goal allowed, and with all the momentum in the world, the Canadiens had a chance to really turn the screw on the Senators. Instead, over the next seven-and-a-half minutes, from 10:06 to 17:39, the Habs mustered three shot attempts while the Senators tallied 14.
The Canadiens are perhaps right to feel aggrieved by how regulation ended. They are perhaps right to believe that they were denied the win by a few bounces. However, none of that cancels out the fact that they should have had this game in hand well before the third period even started.
Much like the last few encounters between these two clubs, the Canadiens played this hockey game afraid of the Ottawa Senators, and the Senators were more than willing to pounce on the fresh meat that the Habs laid out.