It’s been a great battle, one that left many wounded soldiers unable to help their troup while they were getting slaughtered by opposition through an eight game winless streak, followed by another seven game winless streak a week later. When the dust settled, after losing a third game in as many games to the NHL’s basement dwellers Detroit Red Wings, who were 13 points behind the second worst team in the league, the New Jersey Devils, the Montreal Canadiens are faced with the harsh reality that their hopes for a playoffs’ spot are rapidly fading away… in January.
“But they’re only seven points back from a Wild Card spot“, some people will say. And they are 100% right. However, the Habs have to leapfrog five teams in order to hope for a participation in the playoffs. Yes, they can go on a winning streak once their injured players come back but while Brendan Gallagher seems the closest to returning, the others aren’t expected for at least another week, maybe two.
Management can put the team together, coaches can set systems and game plans but ultimately, the players are the ones who have to put it all together on the ice. They’re the ones scoring goals, defend, stop pucks. They’re the ones deciding if they’re going to put the necessary effort to make things happen or not. And when players put it all on the line for 55 games, exceeding expectations according to most “experts”, you have a team like the Montreal Canadiens battling for a playoffs’ spot at trade deadline.
This group took it upon themselves, coaches included, to go against everyone’s predictions and played an uptempo, fast game that gave opponents nightmares night in, night out. Several players had career years and the team remained relatively healthy. When, by the time team captain and undisputed leader Shea Weber came back from a year’s absence, the Canadiens were in a good position to keep battling for a playoffs’ spot and they did just that… until recently.
The team’s anemic powerplay certainly hasn’t helped. It was actually a huge factor. Having said that, it’s been like that all year, even when the team was winning. That alone isn’t enough to explain the drop in team success. Pointing fingers to the coaching staff for the man advantage is, in my opinion, not right. That one is on the players. It’s not a strategy problem, but rather an execution issue here. Coaches aren’t the ones telling players to make high-risk passes getting intercepted. They’re not the ones saying “give it to Shea” all the time. They are certainly not the ones making the wrong decisions at the wrong time resulting in turnovers in the offensive zone and ultimately, the Canadiens’ players chasing the puck behind their own net.
As of trade deadline day of February 25th, the Canadiens were sixth in the Eastern Conference with a record of 33-23-7, comfortably in a playoffs’ position and closing in on the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins.
In the days leading to the trade deadline, every General Manager of teams battling with the Canadiens made trades to improve their team substantially. Instead of addressing needs at positions where the Canadiens needed help most, like improvement on left defense and secondary scoring, Marc Bergevin decided to add depth to his fourth line and added an outcast defenseman from the Philadelphia Flyers. By “playing it safe”, Bergevin dropped the ball and failed to reward his players for their great work.
Aside from the powerplay, Claude Julien and his assistants have done an outstanding job this season… at least until shortly after trade deadline. The first very questionable decision taken by Julien was on March 2nd against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The night before, the Canadiens had defeated the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden by the score of 4-2. Shea Weber had a reasonable 23:40 of ice time. The Penguins had also played the night before, dropping a 4-3 contest in overtime against the Buffalo Sabres.
Yet against the Pens, seeing that Mike Sullivan was sending Sidney Crosby‘s line to start the game, Julien – who had the last change being at home – decided to respond by sending the pairing of Jeff Petry and Jordie Benn. A mere 21 seconds after the initial puck drop, Benn turned the puck over at his own blue line and Crosby made him pay to give Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead.
As if this wasn’t enough for Julien to realise that for one, the Petry-Benn pairing didn’t work well last year or this year for that matter, and two, they were outmatched by Sid the Kid, he insisted in keeping them against the player voted in a recent NHL players’ survey as the best player in the league. Results? Habs lost that key game 5-1 and Crosby left Montreal after a four-points night. Never has Julien adjusted in that game and put his best shutdown defenseman against the Pens’ top line. Mind boggling decision to say the least.
The following week, the Canadiens were on their annual road trip to California facing two bottom dwellers in the L.A. Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, facing the powerhouse San Jose Sharks in between. Julien, claiming seeing fatigue from his young player, decided not to dress Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Further, he chose to start Antti Niemi against the Sharks instead of against the Kings, a decision that left many perplexed. The Canadiens ended up losing two out of three games on that road trip.
After a lackluster effort against the New York Islanders, forward Andrew Shaw, who was one of a few Canadiens who showed up from start to finish in that game, did not mince his words when asked about the difference in the game.
“They came out to win the game from the start. They wanted to win more than we did. We need to be a team playing hard. Everyone. All lines, all D, goalie; everyone has to be playing their best every night. Lines are taking nights off, players are taking nights off. They don’t have that fight.”
You see, Bergevin went and got Shaw for his leadership, big game ability and because he knows what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. Last night, Shaw continued his inspired play.
Julien continued with his questionable decisions. In a game when the Canadiens were looking for solutions on offense, his second most utilised forward was… Jordan Weal. Kotkaniemi finished the night with 7:56 of ice time, the least utilised player on both teams. Asked after the game why the rookie only played 44 seconds in the third period, Julien explained that the young centre missed a couple of defensive assignments. Geez Claude, if you’re going to sit everyone who misses defensive assignments, I hate to tell you this but you won’t be able to field a team!
As a result, the Canadiens now find themselves three points out of the last Wild Card spot held by the surging Columbus Blue Jackets, and four points back of Carolina who also have a game in hand on both the Habs and Jackets. To make matters worse, the Canadiens can’t “tie” those two teams in points as both have more regulation and overtime wins, which means that Montreal has to finish at least one point ahead.
As much as it pains me to say this folks, forget the playoffs this year and that’s very unfortunate. It could have been prevented. The players brought the team close, management and coaching have let them down. It will be an interesting end of the season as there should be a lot of frustration showing from everyone, from players to media members, and of course fans. Particularly those who were waiting in the weeds all season to pounce on Bergevin.