Questionable Decisions Costing the Habs Playoffs’ Hopes

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.

What happened?

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.

Coaching decisions

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.

Claude Julien

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.

Habs Entering a Slippery Slope

For a while this season, the Montreal Canadiens looked like they wouldn’t lose two games in a row. Such a record allowed them to stay amongst the top teams in the Atlantic Division, keeping up with the likes of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins. While it would have been foolish to think that the inevitable wouldn’t happen, such performances brought some hope into a fan base in dire need of it. But alas, it seems like the pendulum is starting to swing the other way on the Habs.

Last night’s loss to the Carolina Hurricanes was their second loss in a row and the team has a 3-4-3 record in their last 10 games. We can look at this the positive way, saying that during that stretch, they’re only a game below .500 but where it gets serious is when looking at how the teams ahead of them are doing.

Have you had a look at who’s leading the Eastern Conference this morning? The Buffalo Sabres, who have won their last 10 games, are tops in the East! Yes, that’s 10 consecutive wins for a team which, not so long ago, was well behind the Canadiens. They are followed closely by the Lightning (6-4-0) and the Maple Leafs (7-3), holding the top-3 spots in the Atlantic.

The Boston Bruins (5-3-2) have been without three of their top-6 defensemen and without Patrice Bergeron for a while and they have the first wildcard spot in the East. The Hurricanes, who edged the Canadiens 2-1 last night thanks to a stellar performance by their goaltender Curtis McElhinney who stopped 48 of the 49 shots in his direction, have now leapfrogged the Habs for the last wildcard spot.

Help coming

Shea Weber had a successful return.

Last night was Shea Weber‘s first game in almost a year and the veteran All-Star defenseman didn’t disappoint. Weber logged the most ice time both teams included with 25:13 minutes. So much for easing him in! He finished the night with one assist, a plus -1 rating, three shots on goal, one hit, two blocked shots and one takeaway. Not too shabby ‘Dad’!

Coincidently (or not), with Jeff Petry slotted back behind Weber, the Habs allowed only 22 shots on goal against the Hurricanes last night, a much better prestation from a team which had been allowing goals and scoring chances like Santa distributing gifts at Christmas. The turning point of that game, in my opinion, was in the second period when Hurricanes’ defenseman Trevor Van Riemsdyk stole a goal from Jonathan Drouin with an active stick. Had that gone in, it could have been a totally different game.

Reports around Montreal say that Paul Byron is edging closer to a return, he who hasn’t played a game in the month of November. Joel Armia is still several weeks away but both those guys are huge parts of the Canadiens’ all-around game as both are quality penalty-killers and key contributors on the forecheck and defensive coverage.

Defense shuffle

The defensive pairing of Brett Kulak and Jeff Petry was good. While he was clearly out of game shape, Weber was better than expected. But his defensive pairing partner, David Schlemko, was not. And young Victor Mete had a rough night, finishing at minus -2. Here’s what I personally would like to see happening:

Reilly – Weber

Kulak – Petry

Schlemko/Mete – Benn/Ouellet

The Canadiens don’t play until Saturday when they will be hosting the New York Rangers, who are in third place in the Metropolitan division. The next day, the San Jose Sharks, fighting for top spot in the Pacific division, come to the Bell Centre for their only time this season. The Canadiens will complete the week with a home and home with the Ottawa Senators. Go Habs Go!