If you tuned into the first period, you would have likely been turned off by the atrocious defending and subpar goaltending that was all too familiar during the first 40 or so games of the season.
If you tuned into the last two minutes of the second period, you would have experienced every bit of the magic that is Cole Caufield, and his two goals in eight seconds.
If you tuned into the third period, you would have seen a dominant performance from the Canadiens, but with very little to show for it.
In fact, if you ignore the score, the Canadiens dominated the game at five-on-five. Per Natural Stat Trick, the shot attempts were 61-27 in favour of Montreal on the night, the shots on goal were 36-12, and the scoring chances 32-14. The Canadiens had an expected goals percentage of over 65%, but in reality were outscored 4-2 at five-on-five.
All three takeaways you would have taken away from the game are valid. In fact, it epitomizes the team’s season, and why they remain in last place in the NHL.
The defensive zone coverage and the goaltending were awful. The Canadiens, despite controlling almost all of the play with five skaters a side, only held a 10-7 advantage in high danger chances. They allowed the Coyotes to get great scoring chances, especially in the first period.
The coverage had been better under interim head coach Martin St. Louis, but Tuesday’s first period may have been the worst performance of the season in that regard. The absence of Ben Chiarot definitely is a factor, especially considering Joel Edmundson is still adjusting to game shape after missing the entire season minus one game.
Defence, however, is a five-man job. It’s not reliant on the six defenders on the roster alone. Luke Richardson has had good moments, but it is clear whatever he is doing is not working with this team. Similar to the end of Dominique Ducharme’s tenure, either the adjustments are not working, non existent, or he’s simply not explaining it in a way that is getting through to these players. It has, frankly, gone on for too long for it not to be one of those issues.
Samuel Montembeault has had flashes of brilliance, but the fact remains that consistency is an issue. You can’t completely blame him for the goals allowed because of the chances Arizona players had, but at the same time, you need your goalie to make more than three saves on seven shots in a period you controlled for the most part.
Caufield’s display of skill and talent in the second period showed what makes him brilliant. He has the ability to make every single time he touches the puck a scoring chance. He has the potential to be a game-breaker to the extent the Canadiens have not had in years, if not decades.
This isn’t the first time he displayed this type of ability. Remember the playoffs last year, especially his breakaway goal against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 3. Vegas had controlled most of play, with the shots 22-4, but all it took was one breakaway and the game was tied.
A 5-1 game should be over. Caufield made it close on one shift. Of course, the gap on Tuesday was a bit too large for Caufield alone to make any difference.
The good news is that the defensive zone coverage and goaltending can be fixed. Systems can be changed, players can be changed, and it can get straightened out eventually.
The better news is that what Caufield has can’t be taught. You either have it, or you don’t and finding players who have it is incredibly difficult.
The Canadiens actually have two players who have it. Nick Suzuki isn’t as flashy as Caufield, but is just as amazing. Suzuki has what I call “Marie-Philip Poulin-subtleties” to his game. When he has the puck on his stick he does little things, maybe a hesitation here, a touch or a deke there, that make you just shake your head or laugh to yourself. Watching Suzuki’s attempted plays are almost as fun as seeing the ones he converts.
Of course, like Poulin, not everything Suzuki does on the ice is subtle.
After Saturday, I wrote that there was a lot of work to do. After Sunday, I wrote that there was reason to be optimistic.
Tuesday’s game had both front and centre, and that doesn’t make it contradictory. Executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton and general manager Kent Hughes are flying the plane as they build it, but at least it’s moving in the right direction.