It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
It was the best team in the league, it was maybe the worst team in the league.
The Montreal Canadiens needed to be desperate, trying to get out of a malaise that is growing in such concern it threatens to ruin the season. The Ottawa Senators, fresh off looking like the greatest team in hockey overtime on Sunday, tried to make it two straight on Tuesday night.
The contest went to overtime with the Senators winning once again, this time in a shootout, 5-4.
Are they a better team? No one can say that they have seen conclusive evidence this season of that. Do they have more talent? Unquestionably, they have much more talent.
They have added five strong hockey players to their roster this season. One of them made a huge play to their season midway through the third period. Tyler Toffoli had a terrific move around the defender at the blue line and then the tally for a 4-3 lead for Montreal. For Toffoli, that was his 12th goal of the season. He is on pace for one of his best seasons of his career.
The team has more talent. You look at Toffoli and add Josh Anderson and you would think the team should be significantly better with this additional talent. Where would they be without Toffoli and Anderson’s 21 goals? One shudders to think.
It was a big game for the captain when the team needed it desperately. Shea Weber had two goals on the night for four on the season. He also took a double minor that hurt the club as they were scored on the power play, but it was one of those hockey moments that said respect this area around my goalie.
That’s never a horrible statement to make. Weber likely gets away with more violence around the net than any player in the league. The crease is where the goals are scored. If you have a defender making sure that it is not a pleasant place to be, that adds to the positive equation in subtle ways.
Two errors on the first goal against the Canadiens happened before most fans even got in front of their televisions, it was so fast.
Brett Kulak slid over to the right side and was basically standing right beside Alexander Romanov on an Ottawa line rush. It was Kulak who had the error there.
He was no doubt trusting that the forward on the line rush was going to be taken by Jesperi Kotkaniemi who, rather than check his man, did a blow-by and watched the proceedings. It’s not often that there is just one error leading to a goal. Usually, there are two or even three.
On this one, Kulak had an error and Kotkaniemi had an error as well. Kulak didn’t have the lane. Kotkaniemi didn’t have the man.
The Senators aren’t exactly the Maple Leafs or the Oilers on the power play, but the Habs made them look like it.
Ottawa had the 28th ranked power play in the league, but they scored two on the Canadiens who need to be better at special teams. The Canadiens’ penalty kill and the power play are both average at best with gusts to lousy.
Carey Price did his best during one stint in the second period when the Senators were 5-on-3 for one minute and had four minutes straight of power play time to use. Price was strong, until letting in one he would like to have back.
However, the real point here is that Price actually had to be that strong. The Senators must have had six high-quality looks, not just when it was a two-man advantage. It was through out the entire time they dominated. Ottawa should not look that amazing.
Here’s why: they are not amazing. They are 28th.
Now to the power play of the Canadiens. They had two advantages in the first two periods and did not get a shot on goal. In fact, Ottawa got two shots on goal on those two Montreal power plays.
Even worse than the not scoring was the loss of momentum and confidence, simply because of how anemic it was.
In the second period, the Canadiens were actually on a roll, playing their best hockey of the night, but then the power play just put the brakes on all of the positive. Both of the special teams continue to be a massive issue for not just this year, but years on end.
The Canadiens don’t have a power play goal in six games. It is one for the last 21. That’s five percent.
Again, it must be said that Carey Price is an enigma this season. He is one of the best in the NHL at stopping high-danger chances. He is one of the worst in the league at low and medium-danger chances. It is so difficult to figure out what is happening with Price. The athleticism is still there. You see it in the high-danger stops that he makes. He is making amazing athletic maneuvers pushing across to the other side of the crease to make the stop.
However, also in the mix is Brady Tkachuk making a one-hand push of the puck toward the goal with a shot moving at four miles per hour that somehow goes between his pads. This was a terrible goal. One could easily argue that another goal was extremely weak.
The save percentage bears it out as well. Price had an .893 entering the contest, which ranks him 53rd in the league out of 72 goalies.
It’s time. As much as I am fond of the man, it’s time. As much as no one in this hockey industry has been kinder to me over my 37 years, it’s time.
I don’t want to do this. But it’s time.
There are decisions Claude Julien is making that are making it difficult for the Canadiens to find success.
The most important of these is attitude. This is the best club that Julien has coached in Montreal, but they are playing as if they are inferior in talent; holding on for overtime against the worst team in the league.
The Canadiens aren’t bringing the game to their opposition anymore after a start to the season where they were in the face of everyone. They were attacking even Connor McDavid before he could get his legs churning. Now they’re waiting for the Ottawa Senators to bring the game.
Nick Suzuki said the club is playing not to lose. This means he’s playing more afraid of making a mistake than he is excited to make something good happen.
This attitude comes from the coach. Instinctively, every athlete is excited to make magic. They didn’t get to the top dreaming of the neutral zone trap. Suzuki wants to score. He wants to be free to live the dreams of his childhood.
Sunday night, they played not to lose. It was a low-event game against the Senators of all teams.
When you play the worst team in hockey, you want there to be a ton of events all over the ice.
The Canadiens had 44 goals in the first 10 games. Not only that, they were the best possession team in the NHL. Not only that, they had three of the top seven lines in the entire league.
Where did all of that go? They have completely lost their identity.
You know this to be true because all you have to do is watch the first ten games, then watch the next ten. All they have learned in the second ten is how to be afraid.
The head coach is also responsible for player utilization.
This means a player is given the best opportunity to find success by being used to his strengths. Even the player himself wants to be used where he thinks he can do best.
Ben Chiarot’s skill set is not best used, for example, in 3-on-3 overtime.
Philip Danault with no goals this season is not the man to put out in overtime to score to get you that extra point.
Danault hasn’t scored this year! You need a goal! You do not need to stop one!
A head coach knows that no one can take that one the point earned after 60 minutes, so go get that second point.
And it’s 3-on-3: the premium is speed, not brawn. Push the pace. Attack the game. The Senators looked like the Central Red Army while the Habs looked like they were waiting for the game to come to them … and it did. It was embarrassing. Who is supposed to be the strong team here?
There are so many aspects to being a great head coach. Many of them, most of us aren’t even aware of. The hours required to do the job well are long. A head coach starts some days at seven in the morning and finishes at midnight.
It’s painful to criticize someone with such honour who works so hard at his craft.
But these are fundamental issues.
It may sound silly to say, but a part of coaching is a little bit Ted Lasso. A head coach is a motivator. A head coach is not just a tactician, he’s responsible for the belief and confidence that his men play with. He creates joy, determination, unselfishness, and he builds a bond of caring for each other.
You don’t want to hear Nick Suzuki say “we’re playing afraid” and you don’t want to see Ben Chiarot playing in overtime.
My fear is Marc Bergevin will not be patient considering he improved his team greatly with five major acquisitions. He won’t allow this season to be lost.
My hope is Julien can move his team through this. It’s not over yet, but it’s getting there.
My disappointment is I have had to write this because no one has been kinder to me than Julien.
But this is the job, and I also owe you my honesty. I also owe you my forthright best.