That was ugly.
Saturday night’s 2-0 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks didn’t eliminate the Canadiens from the playoffs, but it delivered a huge blow to their chances with only 10 games remaining in the regular season.
While the Canadiens were getting shut out at the Bell Centre, the Carolina Hurricanes were beating the Buffalo Sabres 4-2 and the Columbus Blue Jackets were losing 2-1 in overtime to the Boston Bruins, picking up a loser point. The Canadiens (37-28-7) are now four points behind the Hurricanes (39-25-7), who hold the first wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and three points behind the Blue Jackets (40-28-4), who hold the second spot. The Hurricanes hold a game in hand on both the Blue Jackets and Canadiens.
The sportsclubstats.com website now has the Canadiens’ chances of making the playoffs listed at 18.8 per cent. The Canadiens are 1-4 in their last five games and 6-10-1 in their last 17.
Canadiens coach Claude Julien made some head-scratching decisions Saturday night, including putting Artturi Lehkonen on a line with Max Domi and Andrew Shaw. Domi is the team’s best playmaker and Lehkonen now has one goal in his last 34 games. It doesn’t make sense to me to put a guy who can’t score with your best playmaker, but it obviously does to Julien.
“Well, he hit the post tonight, right. And he had another great scoring chance where (Blackhawks goalie Corey) Crawford made an unbelievable glove save,” Julien said after the game when asked about his use of Lehkonen.
Of course, Lehkonen failed to score on both chances. There are reasons why Lehkonen has only one goal in 34 games — he can’t finish. Julien also had Lehkonen on the ice during the final minute of play after goalie Carey Price was pulled for an extra attacker.
“Just because he hasn’t scored, I don’t know why we should question whether he should be there because his effort is there,” Julien said about Lehkonen. “I thought Paulie (Byron) the last couple of games had some issues. So we just moved guys around and I thought (Lehkonen) did a good job on that line. He gives that line a little bit more of a defensive responsibility as well and he was in great position to score a couple of goals for us tonight.”
The problem is that he didn’t — which shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
Byron was demoted to the fourth line with Nate Thompson and Jordan Weal, while Jonathan Drouin played with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia. The line of Tomas Tatar with Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher remained intact.
Weal finished the game with 19:04 of ice time. The only forward who played more was Domi with 19:32. Kotkaniemi had a team-low 7:56 of ice time — his lowest total this season — after getting benched for most of the third period, playing only two shifts.
Julien said after the game that Kotkaniemi is a young player who is still learning and that he let his man go on two or three shifts which resulted in scoring chances for the Blackhawks. I’m not sure how much Kotkaniemi learned by sitting on the bench for all but 40 seconds of the third period and you have to wonder if his confidence is starting to shatter after also being made a healthy scratch for two games on the recent California road trip.
It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened to a young Canadiens player.
As for Weal logging more than 19 minutes of ice time, Julien said: “He played a lot because he takes faceoffs on the right side and he’s good at taking those draws. When KK’s ice time got diminished, I put him at centre with those two other forwards.”
Weal won seven of the 14 faceoffs he took — 50 per cent — had two shots on goal and was minus-1. He also had 3:48 of ice time on the power play.
When asked about his team’s lack of execution after outshooting the Blackhawks 48-24, Julien said: “There’s two things. You wonder whether for some guys whether the pressure or whether it’s a slump that we’re going through. There’s other teams going through it right now, but they’re in a playoff position. They can probably afford to go through that easier than we are. The time just isn’t good for us to struggle right now. The effort is there, the care, the caring is there, I think. So the only thing missing right now is our game to be at its best and it’s just not there.”
Power play is simply brutal
Speaking of the power play, the Canadiens went 0-for-4 against the Blackhawks and are now 2-for-40 in the last 16 games. The Canadiens’ power play is by far the worst in the NHL at 11.9 per cent. The Nashville Predators have the second-worst power play at 13.1 per cent.
The Canadiens have scored a league-low 26 power-play goals this season. The New Jersey Devils, who rank 15th in the NHL on the power play, have scored 40 power-play goals. So if the Canadiens were only middle-of-the-pack on the power play, they would have scored 14 more power-play goals this season.
How many more wins would that have resulted in? I’d say three or four, which would have the Canadiens sitting in a playoff spot. If the Canadiens miss the playoffs for the second straight year — which is looking very likely — the power play will be the No. 1 reason and something will have to be done during the offseason to fix it, whether it’s coaching or player personnel.
“It’s definitely been an issue that I think has hurt us this year,” defenceman Jeff Petry said. “But we can’t stop working on it and trying to tweak things to get it going. We have an important stretch here where I think everything needs to find a way to click and we need to be sharp down these final games.”
What’s the problem with the power play?
“I don’t know,” Petry said. “I think there’s times where we’re getting in the zone and then we’re kind of forcing plays or we’re having trouble getting into the zone and once we are we’re moving the puck well. But we have to find a way to connect all the pieces. We can’t be good on entries and then be a one-and-done power play. Like I said, we need to connect all the pieces and I think that’s on every guy in here that’s on the power play to really focus in because it’s going to be important in this stretch, and then in the playoffs you know how important the special-team game is.”
Right now, it looks like the special-team game is going to keep the Canadiens out of the playoffs.
Drouin’s struggles continue
Drouin was held pointless for the 15th time in the last 16 games. He has only four assists during that span, all coming in an 8-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Feb. 26.
While Drouin has been his own worst enemy for much of the season, he’s not going to break out of his slump playing on a line with Armia, who has zero points in the last seven games and has been playing like the Friendly Giant at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, seeming afraid to hit anybody.
It’s time to put Drouin back with Domi and see if the Canadiens can actually generate some offence after scoring one goal in the last two games. Drouin and Domi played very well together early in the season and if you’re going to keep playing Drouin you might as well give him a chance to succeed.
Drouin had four shots on goal in 15:13 of ice time against the Blackhawks and was minus-1.
Where is everybody?
When the Canadiens’ locker room was opened to the media after the game there were only two players still there: Lehkonen and Weal.
Captain Shea Weber eventually came out to say a few words, along with Price and Petry. That was it. There was no player made available to say a few words in French for RDS or TVA Sports.
“We got to score goals,” said Weber, always a man of very few words. “We got to find a way to score goals.
“We had good chances,” Weber added. “(Crawford) made some good saves. We had some rebounds, we didn’t get them in. He made good saves in tight. Obviously, we just need to find a way to put them in.”
Weber has looked very slow in recent games and when asked if he is playing injured simply said: “No.”
Weber will turn 34 this summer and has seven seasons remaining on his contract.
Shaw backs up his words
Shaw called out his teammates after Thursday night’s 2-1 loss to the Islanders in New York, saying: “We haven’t had a game where every guy in the room has been going on the same night. That’s the type of team that we are. We need to be a team, playing hard. Everyone … all lines, all D, goalie, everyone’s got to be playing their best every night. Lines are taking nights off, players are taking nights off.”
Shaw basically repeated those words after practice Friday and against the Blackhawks Saturday night he led the Canadiens in shots (seven) and hits (seven) in 17:42 of ice time.
“Everything he said there was honesty and it was the truth,” Jordie Benn said about Shaw after Saturday’s morning skate in Brossard. “We got to be ready to go. We’re in a dogfight now. It’s the playoffs for us.”
Said Domi after the morning skate: “You can expect a team that’s going to come out and play hard and do whatever it takes to win. I think the only thing that really matters is what happens in this locker room and that’s the players. That’s all we’re focused on is just as a group playing for the guy to the left and the right of us and across from us and that’s all we can control. So we’re going to do that night in, night out, day in, day out, and hopefully that will take care of the rest and that will be enough. We’re going to leave it all out there, that’s for sure.
“What happened in this locker room will stay in this locker room,” Domi added. “No offence to you guys or anyone else, but you’re not on the team. So we want the privilege to know what goes on between these walls here and we’ll keep it that way. We’re a tight-knit group and we want to win and we’ll play as hard as we possibly can every shift for each other and that’s how it’s going to continue to be.”
Blackhawks on a roll
The Blackhawks (32-30-9) extended their win streak to five games with Saturday night’s victory and it coincides with the return of goaltender Corey Crawford from the injured-reserve list as part of the NHL’s concussion protocol.
The Châteauguay native stopped all 48 shots against the Canadiens for his fifth straight win, during which he has allowed 10 goals.
Saturday’s game was the second and final meeting between the Canadiens and Blackhawks this season. The Canadiens beat the Blackhawks 3-2 on Dec. 9 at the United Center. The Blackhawks have now won their last five games at the Bell Centre.
Pre-game ceremony for Price
Price was honoured during a pre-game ceremony Saturday night for winning his 315th career game last Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings to pass Hall of Famer Jacques Plante and move alone into first place on the Canadiens’ all-time win list for goalies.
“It’s great for Carey and his family,” Domi said. “Stuff like that isn’t why you play the game, but it’s obviously pretty cool. To see a guy like that, as humble as he is, as hard as he works and as good as a teammate as he is, it’s very special and I’m very happy for him. He’s just getting started … I think he’s got another 350 in him. Best goalie in the world, best goalie in a long time and hopefully at the end of his career you’re going to say he’s the best goalie ever. He’s a great guy, so he deserves every bit of credit he’s getting and hopefully we can get him a win tonight.”
DeBrincat a little big man
When the Blackhawks traded Shaw to the Canadiens on June 24, 2016, they acquired two second-round picks at that year’s NHL Draft. They used one of them to select 5-foot-7, 165-pound forward Alex DeBrincat, who picked up two assists Saturday night and has 38-33-71 totals this season.
Canadiens defenceman Victor Mete knows DeBrincat well.
“I played against him my whole OHL career,” Mete said. “I think we played our first years in the league together. He played on Erie and I was in London. He’s always been a goal-scorer. He’s always, I think, put up 50-goal seasons, starting from his first year in the O. He can definitely shoot the puck.”
During his three seasons in the OHL, DeBrincat scored 51, 51 and 65 goals.
“He was playing with good players there, he was with (Connor) McDavid and (Dylan) Strome,” Mete said. “I think it just gets a little bit easier when you come to the NHL and now everybody can kind of set you up like that as long as you can put the puck in the net — and he can do that.”
The Blackhawks acquired Strome from Arizona on Nov. 25 after he posted 3-3-6 totals in 20 games. Strome picked up an assist against the Canadiens and now has 14-31-45 totals in 48 games with the Blackhawks since being reunited with DeBrincat. The Coyotes selected Strome with the No. 3 overall pick at the 2015 NHL Draft.
The Blackhawks used the second draft pick they acquired from the Canadiens in exchange for Shaw to select defenceman Chad Krys, who has 7-9-16 totals in 27 games this season with Boston University.
The Canadiens will have the day off on Sunday and have a practice scheduled for 10:45 a.m. Monday as they prepare to visit the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio).
The Canadiens will then play back-to-back home games against the New York Islanders on Thursday (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio) and the Buffalo Sabres next Saturday (7 p.m., CITY, SNE, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio). That will be followed by a rare Sunday night game against the Hurricanes in Carolina (7 p.m., SN, RDS, TSN 690 Radio).
from Montreal Gazette https://montrealgazette.com/sports/hockey/nhl/hockey-inside-out/canadiens-game-day-habs-chances-of-making-playoffs-drop-to-32-3-per-cent