The Montreal Canadiens knew they’d be stepping in to a hostile environment when they touched down at Xcel Energy Center on Sunday.
This was going to be an uphill battle, playing for a second time in 24 hours and for a third time in four nights, and against a 1-6-1 Minnesota Wild team that was idle since the Canadiens beat them at Bell Centre on Thursday. The Wild had a players-only meeting following their lacklustre 4-1 loss to the Canadiens and were called out by forward Jason Zucker.
“I think more than (the players-only meeting is) going to have to jump-start us, to be honest with you,” Zucker told Wild reporters Thursday. “It’s going to be (up to) each individual guy … from (coach) Bruce (Boudreau) on down. Bruce has got to be better. We’ve got to be better. Everybody’s got to be better. That’s it.”
You can imagine how those comments played within the Wild organization.
Zucker apologized to Boudreau on the plane ride home from Montreal and explained his comments to reporters after Saturday’s practice.
“There was no reason for me to use (Boudreau’s) name in that quote in any way,” Zucker said. “That’s completely on me. My intention with the quote was to state that everybody needs to be better and needs to do more and pull more weight, and 99.9 per cent of that is on the players.”
The next phase was for Zucker to shine as Minnesota’s best player in what the Wild hoped would be a win over the Canadiens on Sunday.
He proved to be exactly that, and they managed to win 4-3.
It was Zucker who tipped a puck in the high slot for a power-play goal that opened the scoring in the ninth minute of the game. And it was Zucker who set up the game-winning goal with just over seven minutes left — a bullet-pass through a cluster of bodies that found Zach Parise’s blade and quickly found the back of the net.
The Canadiens were too tired to counter. They had allowed a one-goal lead to slip away at the 8:38 mark of a period they were dominating, and the Parise goal (scored at 12:54) knocked whatever wind they had left out of them.
It wasn’t so much that the tide had turned; it was more about how it did…
THE BIG TAKEAWAY
Bad penalties and bad penalty killing is a bad combination. A combination that killed the Canadiens in this game.
Montreal has taken several bad penalties through nine contests and its penalty kill hasn’t been nearly good enough to overcome that problem.
So when Paul Byron took a holding penalty on Minnesota’s Carson Soucy — 200 feet away from Montreal’s net — it was going to spell trouble for the Canadiens.
They were dominating the Wild up until that point. Phil Danault scored his second goal of the game to make it 3-2 on one of nine shots (to Minnesota’s zero) to open the third period. And then Byron went to the box and everything changed.
Off the next faceoff, Danault was beat clean, the puck went from Jordan Greenway to Matt Dumba and over to Brad Hunt, who one-timed it past a helpless Keith Kinkaid. It marked the ninth time the Canadiens have allowed a power-play goal this season.
Aside from Zucker’s first-period tip on the power play, which came after Artturi Lehkonen took a double-minor for high-sticking, all of these goals the Canadiens have allowed look alike. The opposition’s best shooter is getting a clean one-timer look, seam-passes are getting through, and shots are going unblocked.
As a result, the Canadiens have only killed 22 of 31 penalties they’ve taken.
That’s a problem, obviously. It’s a problem that only five other teams have taken more penalties than the Canadiens have so far.
These are issues that cost them Sunday’s game, and they’re ones that will cost them more if they don’t fix it.
• It certainly wasn’t Kinkaid’s fault. Montreal’s backup wasn’t at his best in allowing five goals on 39 shots in a loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 9, but he was outstanding despite allowing four goals on 33 shots from the Wild on Sunday.
If it wasn’t for Kinkaid making successive sensational saves on Eric Staal, Greenway and Jared Spurgeon on another poor penalty kill from the Canadiens towards the end of the first period, this game would have been a runaway win for the Wild.
His rolling glove-save on Zucker in the second was an early highlight-of-the-season candidate and will probably stand up as one from here to April.
He deserved better.
• Montreal’s power play connected for yet another goal — its ninth in nine games. It has scored in all but one game so far and is now up to 27.3 per cent, which is good enough for sixth in the NHL.
On the list of things that have been a complete shock so far, that has to rank just behind the 14-2-1 combined start to the season for the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres. You probably know by now that the Canadiens were 30th on the power play and operated at 13.2 per cent last season, but in case you didn’t…
The Canadiens return to Montreal, where they’ll take Monday off before practising Tuesday and Wednesday and welcoming the San Jose Sharks to the Bell Centre Thursday.