Canadiens’ defensive issues the root of ‘unacceptable’ loss to Rangers

Brendan Lemieux scored twice, Artemi Panarin added another and the New York Rangers came back from 4-0 to beat the Montreal Canadiens 6-5.

MONTREAL — It was a first period that saw the Montreal Canadiens score three times, and yet most of the highlights were at the other end of the ice.

The New York Rangers, coming off a 4-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators a night prior, took 12 shots on Carey Price in the opening 20 minutes, and they deserved much better than to be down three goals.

Price turned a Chris Kreider shot from 17 feet out aside in the second minute of play. He followed that up with a remarkable save on a tip from Pavel Buchnevich. He made back-to-back 10-bellers on Adam Fox and Filip Chytil, and came up big by punching out a dangerous shot from Tony DeAngelo with just under two minutes to play in the first.

Seconds later, Max Domi shot a weak wrister off a defender right in front of him and it beat Alexandar Georgiev from 37 feet out. This after Artturi Lehkonen beat him clean from 39 feet away exactly halfway through the frame, and after Domi broke a 10-game scoring drought with a goal from inside the crease.

“I told the guys after the first period, we’re up 3-0 for one reason,” started Canadiens coach Claude Julien, “We capitalized on our chances, they didn’t. We didn’t dominate the first period.”

What the Canadiens did in periods two and three — blowing 4-0 and 5-3 leads and losing 6-5 — was symptomatic of what’s lost them more games than they’ve won through 23 this season.

“Offensively, we’re still a good team,” Julien said about the 11-7-5 Canadiens. “But we have to figure it out defensively. We’re not hard enough, we’re not killing plays, and our backcheck wasn’t good at all tonight. We played against a hungry team, even if they played last night, which is another reason this was unacceptable. After three games without a win, we should have been hungry to the point of not allowing these things to happen. So, it’s unacceptable and we’ll take control of this and we’ll correct this situation.”

They had better.

The standings are getting closer by the second, with the Canadiens owning a one-point cushion on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are suddenly surging, and a three-point advance on a Tampa Bay Lightning team that has three games in-hand.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are in the first wild-card position in the Eastern Conference with one more point than the Canadiens have accumulated. And the Philadelphia Flyers occupy the second wild-card with an identical record to Montreal through 23 games.

The Canadiens came into Saturday’s game against the 9-9-2 Rangers having surrendered the 12th-most goals-against in the National Hockey League. Their penalty kill ranked 28th overall after having killed off just 72.5 per cent of its penalties.

And despite killing off three penalties and a 5-on-3 opportunity the Rangers had, Montreal made a mess of things without the puck at even strength all night.

This four-game losing streak began with a sloppy game against the New Jersey Devils last Saturday. Then the Canadiens played a strong game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday and another one on Wednesday against Ottawa, and they lost both because they failed to score enough.

On Saturday night, against a motivated Rangers team, the Canadiens got two goals out of Domi, two out of Lehkonen, one from Shea Weber, and eight different players recorded a point.

But no one, including Price, could buckle down enough to keep the puck from going in their own net through the final two periods.

“You can’t (explain) that, other than the fact that that’s on us as a group,” said Canadiens assistant captain Brendan Gallagher, who finished minus-2 in Saturday’s game.

“(There’s no one) else to point the finger at. That can’t happen in this league. Too many guys, even when we had the lead — I definitely put myself in that category — weren’t good enough. We had too many passengers tonight. We had a few guys going. But a lot of us, for whatever reason, weren’t good enough.”

Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar, Gallagher’s linemates, each finished minus-2 as well.

Charles Hudon, who recorded his first point of the season, was a game-worst minus-3 despite playing just 12:49.

Hudon’s linemates, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia, weren’t any better.

As Julien pointed out afterwards, the 19-year-old Kotkaniemi iced the puck and then lost the ensuing faceoff cleanly on the game-winning goal from Jacob Trouba.

“Those are costly mistakes,” Julien said. “Whether you’re 19 or 30, you have to learn that those are the kind of mistakes you can’t make.”

Julien added that pointing to mistakes Kotkaniemi made on the play in question was “just an example,” and that his team, “needs to be better defensively, better at killing plays,” and better on the backcheck.

With the 15-3-5 Boston Bruins up next, the Canadiens must address these issues with a sense of urgency.

“We know the importance, we don’t need people to tell us,” said Gallagher. “We understand how tight it is (in the standings). We understand what we went through last year (in missing the playoffs despite earning 96 points). You can’t let points slip away.”

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