MONTREAL— Let’s get one thing straight before we delve deep into what has to be considered the most mystifying thing about these Montreal Canadiens: There wasn’t one particular thing they could’ve done to avoid losing 4-0 to the Boston Bruins at the Bell Centre on Monday.
They were atrocious in nearly every department in a crucial game against their most bitter rivals.
Effort? Awful. Execution? Non-existent. Excuses? None.
“They came here on a mission to win, we came here just to play,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien afterwards, and he had no explanation for why that was the case.
The Bruins came to town on the heels of a tough loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday, and they should have been in tough against a rested Canadiens team that had won six of its last eight games. It was expected they’d come flying out of the gates and try to give themselves a lead they could pad and protect knowing every passing second thereafter would be a challenge to their stamina.
They did their part, the Canadiens didn’t. Point finale.
Here’s the thing: You have to wonder how different the complexion of this game might have been had Montreal’s power play found a way to capitalize on its chances in the first two periods.
Canadiens goaltender Carey Price stood on his head through the first 40 minutes and kept his team alive in spite of everything it had done to kill itself in this one. In the first period alone Price made 12 saves after his teammates committed 14 turnovers and lost 60 per cent of the faceoffs, and in the second he held the fort all the way up until the Bruins found the net with 26 seconds left.
In between, three power-play opportunities were gifted to the Canadiens. They didn’t muster a single quality scoring chance on any of them.
Mystifying? You bet.
So is this: The team hasn’t scored a goal in its last 25 man-advantages. It has only one since Shea Weber — the man with the biggest point shot in the NHL — returned 10 games ago. And it has scored on just 14 of 117 chances this season (only three teams in the league have been given more).
It seems impossible that it could be this bad with one of the league’s most well-reputed strategists running it in Kirk Muller, with a brilliant offensive coordinator in Dominique Ducharme helping him, and with the talented players who have managed to make the Canadiens the second-highest scoring team at five-on-five this season.
Even still, the lousy power play hasn’t cost the Canadiens their place among the top eight teams in their conference. It has, however, not enabled them to gain a stronger foothold in the playoff picture.
It cost them against Boston, no doubt. A team that came into Montreal down one point in the standings and left up one.
And as the games tighten up over the second half, the power play promises to cost the Canadiens more if they don’t fix it in a hurry.
You have to wonder how close the Canadiens are to finding solutions. Judging by what they’re showing on the ice, they appear very far away. And in talking to them, they seem to know what needs to be done once they’re set up, but appear utterly clueless as to how to consistently establish themselves in the offensive zone.
“I just think we need to shoot the puck,” said Price. “When things go wrong, it just seems like it’s a pretty simple recipe that everyone seems to come up with. Just get the puck towards the net and just jam it in.”
Four of Montreal’s 22 shots came on the power play — and no one was close enough to the net to jam in a rebound.
Julien shared his own thoughts, saying the team hasn’t rethought its strategy going back to last season, when it operated at 21.9 per cent and finished 13th in the category.
“I think at one point, as much as a coach doesn’t want to point fingers, I think the players have to take ownership,” said Julien. “They’re your best players on your team and they have to start performing. They gotta start shooting pucks and wanting to score goals.”
The Canadiens also need to find a way up the ice that allows them to break into the offensive zone with more consistency. They need better support to win loose pucks and set up their structure.
And they need to find the desperation that was sorely lacking against the Bruins. The desperation that largely hasn’t been there since the puck dropped in Toronto on Oct. 3.
“It’s just the little things,” said Brendan Gallagher. “We have to win puck battles. It’s not a strategic problem. It’s just work ethic, compete. We have to find a way to get the puck. We didn’t have enough control of the puck in the zone to put into practice anything that we’ve worked on or talked about. It’s as simple as that. It’s not strategic.”
Whatever it is or isn’t, it’s a problem. A confounding one.
Had the Canadiens solved it on this night, it still might not have been enough to save them. They were outshot 35-22 and out-chanced by a wide margin as they gave away the puck 24 times and had it taken away from them another seven.
“But when you capitalize on those opportunities on the power play down 1-0, you have an opportunity to tie the game and that’s what we’re put out there for,” said Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry. “It’s to execute and get a big goal at a big time of the game, and we haven’t been able to do that.”