BROSSARD, Que. — The Montreal Canadiens had a meeting Friday morning and then jumped into a high-intensity, 50-minute practice at their south shore training facility.
Halfway through, they ran 3-on-3 battle drills. Full contact, and at full speed. They carved up the ice and worked themselves to the bone and then finished up with some shooting drills.
This was on the heels of a playoff-style game in New York a night prior. One the Canadiens lost 2-1 because they couldn’t seem to match the energy of the hometown Islanders. So, whether or not it will serve the team best come Saturday, when the Chicago Blackhawks come to the Bell Centre, is anybody’s guess.
Count us among those who felt the Canadiens would have benefited from some rest on Friday. Their schedule has seen them play nine of their last 11 games on the road and 11 games in 20 nights, and it seems abundantly clear it’s caught up to them as they haven’t managed to win consecutive games on more than one occasion over that time.
Canadiens assistant captain Brendan Gallagher isn’t of the same opinion. He was happy to practice on Friday and afterwards said, “It’s probably a good thing to battle. It always seems to carry over.”
Maybe it will for Montreal when they face off against the Blackhawks on Saturday. But you have to wonder if they have enough gas in the reserve tank to persevere in the extremely tight playoff race they’re currently entrenched in, if they can turn on the afterburners to muster a winning record over their final 11 games — four of them to finish against cream-of-the-crop teams from Winnipeg, Tampa Bay, Washington and Toronto.
The risk that they wouldn’t have the energy to do it has been there since the beginning of the season, when coach Claude Julien instituted a system that would demand a full-throttle effort at both ends of the ice. He warned several times — after the Canadiens got off to a 6-2-2 start — that it would be up to the group to prove they could sustain the speed game they were catching teams off guard with. The game Montreal defenceman Victor Mete described on Friday as: “Closing quickly, taking guys’ time and space away, quick reloads so the D can pinch down the wall, hard forechecking.”
It all seems to be in doubt now, but Julien believes his team still has what it takes to play the way he wants it to.
“[Fatigue] would be the lamest excuse we could ever find [for not executing the system],” he said. “I think right now it’s more about having the willingness to do it. We’ve given guys lots of rest, there’s no reason to be tired. If anything, we’re a quick team because we have good skaters. That’s why we’re playing a fast game. It’s not one of those things where we’re pushing the guys to play faster than they can and because of that they’re exhausted. Absolutely not. So we can look at all the excuses in the world right now and it’s pretty obvious we’re not playing a good enough game right now to be able to win.
“We need to be better in the little details and what we do. Little details could be the first period. We need to be better prepared to jump on the ice and expect a tough opponent. We have to be ready to finish. All these things that you talk about — if reloading’s not as important as it was at the beginning of the year, those are things that can end up hurting you. All these things — forecheck, closing quickly so we can turn pucks over — we just need to get back to that and it has zero to do with fatigue. We have all the tools that you can ask for that you need to tell you whether the guys are tired or not, and they’re not. So all that’s good.”
The results of late suggest otherwise, and it’s not the first time this season the Canadiens’ energy has waned.
It was painfully obvious in November they had hit a bit of a wall when they went 5-7-2.
They caught a second wind in December, sparked largely by the return of Shea Weber from a year-long absence that followed surgery on both legs, and managed to close out 2018 with a 10-5-0 run. They rode the wave to a 7-4-0 January and opened February with wins in three of their first four games. But since then, the Canadiens have been stuck in a win-one-lose-one pattern that’s forced them to the bubble of the playoff picture.
By the time they wake up on Saturday, they could be as many as two points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets and three points back of the Carolina Hurricanes, who are in the first wild-card position.
How will the Canadiens reverse course?
“We need to be a team playing hard,” Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw said following the disappointing loss to New York on Thursday. “All lines, all D, goalie — everyone has to be playing their best every night.”
A little rest could go a long way towards enabling the Canadiens to do that.
Julien will likely give it to them Saturday morning, and they’ll have a day off on Sunday, and perhaps their practice schedule will be reduced from here to the end.
But the coach felt Friday’s skate was imperative.
“We felt that today we needed to work on parts of our game that’s slipping and that was the priority,” said Julien. “I think the guys are mentally strong enough to understand the importance of tomorrow and the energy should be there.”
We’ll see how long it lasts.