The Montreal Canadiens, for whatever reason, have never been good in 4-on-4 and 3-on-3 situations. However, Sunday night in Ottawa, after dodging several bullets en route to securing a road point, they played an overtime frame so catastrophically bad that it was like handing the Ottawa Senators an extra magazine and asking them politely to keep firing.
Example 1: Right off the bat, Nick Suzuki’s first rush sets the tone for the whole ill-fated extra frame.
The decision to deploy a trifecta of Nick Suzuki, Josh Anderson, and Jeff Petry was a good one, given the trio’s well-balanced blend of offence, defence, and speed. However, seizing control after a Senators turnover, Suzuki enters the attacking zone and opts to attack the lone defender Mikey Reilly. Normally, I wouldn’t fault the youngster’s initiative (a rare commodity for a Habs player in recent days), but here, Suzuki needs to recognize the game situation. First, he is already 20 seconds into a shift. Second, his partner on the rush is Jeff Petry, not Josh Anderson. Suzuki needs to make the smart decision, pull up, establish attacking possession, and allow the Canadiens to dictate the pace. Instead, he tries to nutmeg Reilly, fails, and the play eventually results in a situation where Anderson is one-on-one with Brady Tkachuk, resulting in a Senators breakaway.
To make matters worse, immediately after Tkachuk is stopped twice by Jake Allen, the Canadiens trio gets a second bite at the cherry. At this point, the clock reads 4:20 and the shift is 40 seconds old, but Anderson shows no inclination of slowing things down and trying to secure a change. Once again, Petry is the forward’s partner. Once again, the forward tries to beat an Ottawa defender. Once again, the puck is turned over and the Senators get a quality chance—this time a two on one that Allen stops and holds.
Example 2: An on-ice stoppage lets the bench team get in on the act.
With a defensive zone faceoff, Claude Julien deploys Phillip Danault, Tyler Toffoli, and Ben Chiarot. All three of these players are excellent 5-on-5 players, but none of them excel in the wide-open environs of 3-on-3. Critically, all of them lack sufficient pace to execute effective puck retrieval when space is available.
Danault, to his credit, does what he’s supposed to do—win the faceoff. Chiarot takes control, marches the puck out of the zone, and immediately turns it over in attempting to carry it into the Senators zone. As expected, Danault does a good job forcing Tim Stützle and the Senators to the perimeter and even outside of the zone, but the centre never threatens puck possession and the Canadiens do not touch the disk again until with 3:18 remaining in the overtime—nearly an entire minute.
Example 3: As the Canadiens try to climb out of the hole, brain cramps push them back in.
When a Stützle turnover hands the puck finally back to the visitors, Tyler Toffoli is the one lugging it up the ice. Despite being the only member of his unit who hasn’t changed, Toffoli does not think about handing off to Jesperi Kotkaniemi or Alexander Romanov and heading off the ice. Instead, Toffoli marches into the zone and lets loose an unscreened slap shot from beyond the faceoff dot. Hey, at least he didn’t try to beat a defender one-on-one.
Fortunately for Montreal, Jesperi Kotkaniemi chases down the rebound. The Finn cycles the puck back to Romanov, who walks the line and surveys the situation. Instead of changing, Toffoli—now over a minute into his shift—assumes a position in the slot. Romanov feeds him the puck, and Toffoli makes a good play to get it down to an undefended Kotkaniemi down low. Kotkaniemi’s angle is too tight to make a good shot, but finally, the Canadiens have possession in the Ottawa zone... and finally, Toffoli heads to the bench.
Unsurprisingly, this is Montreal’s best 10-15 seconds of the frame. The newly arrived Paul Byron has Evgenii Dadonov looking the wrong way, allowing Kotkaniemi to walk around Stützle and get a very good look at Matt Murray. The shot misses, but Kotkaniemi is able to track down the rebound in the corner. Interestingly, Stützle, after being beaten, immediately heads to the bench—and Byron takes this opportunity to jump up into the play.
The problem is that Byron jumps up into the action in an extremely bizarre way. Instead of taking a straight path into the slot, he takes an abnormally wide arc into the right faceoff circle. There’s some logic here about possibly taking a pass from the net-adjacent Kotkaniemi and setting up a 2-on-1 with Romanov, but Byron needs to be aware of two things. One, Kotkaniemi, at the end of a shift and being pressured, will be looking to send the puck into the slot out of instinct. Two, there’s a player coming off the Senators bench behind Byron—and in the present situation, there is only one way for that player to hurt Montreal: if the puck slides through the centre of the ice in the direction of the Senators bench. If the puck takes any other path, the Senators player will have to either chase it down, or the distance that the puck must travel gives Byron time to recover.
Lo and behold, Byron exposes the one lane that he should not expose. Lo and behold, that’s where the pass goes.
Example 4: The final dagger.
Connor Brown gets a breakaway as a result of Byron’s generosity, which is stopped by Allen. Kotkaniemi and Romanov are now 40 seconds into the shift. The Canadiens can’t get the puck. Brown hits the post.
Having used up at least five lives so far, the Canadiens get a potential sixth when after a near minute of zone time, the puck is finally forced out with 1:45 left in the extra period. Kotkaniemi, who’s been on the ice for a minute and a half now, does what Stützle did and abandons the play. This is absolutely the right decision. Kotkaniemi at this point is nothing more than an exhausted pylon. The wrong decision here is the coaching staff choosing to send out Josh Anderson for the Finnish centre.
Anderson has been a great acquisition for the Canadiens, and the power forward is good at many things. Playing active defence and engaging in defensive zone puck retrieval is not one of them. Doing these things as the only fit player on the ice is especially not part of his portfolio. True to form, Anderson dutifully assumes his position in the triangle and listlessly waves his stick a few times. Instead of actively rotating to target the puck carrier, he retreats to his “assignment”—the point man—when Tkachuk takes the puck behind the net. This retreat continues as Tkachuk walks out into the slot, and by the time the game winner is scored, Anderson, the only fresh legs on the ice, is standing still at the top of the circle, guarding a player that is actually now guarding him and the breakaway threat that he potentially represents.
It wasn’t as if there weren’t other options. Phillip Danault had been on the bench for several minutes, same with Jeff Petry. There were other aggressive forecheckers like Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, defensively strong players like Jake Evans and Joel Armia, and the perfect combination of both in Artturi Lehk-... uh... whoops?
But hey, Josh Anderson was next on the rotation.
If this feels like a rolling narrative play-by-play of the overtime instead of a case-by-case breakdown, that’s because it is. The Canadiens did not play a single shift in the overtime without making a mistake. They did not handle the puck a single time without doing something stupid within the next 30 seconds. They gave the Ottawa Senators multiple grade A scoring chances on every shift, and it’s only thanks to Jake Allen that this piece is 1,500 words instead of 500.
There are a lot of ways to win in the NHL when not playing well. You can get bounces. You can catch a team worse than you. You can ride the heights of 3-4 really good minutes. You can coast on special teams. You can sit back and watch one line plus a goalie carry 16 other players.
What you can’t do is be stupid. Stupidity spreads and permeates to every aspect of your game. It affects everything you do with the puck and without the puck. There is no amount of luck or skill that can override stupid.
Sunday night, for 3:30 of an overtime frame, the Canadiens, from top to bottom, were stupid.