TORONTO – Change is on the horizon for the Montreal Canadiens, and it should be.
They have many adjustments to make in order to stimulate more offence after scoring just four goals through the first two games of their Stanley Cup qualifier series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it doesn’t just boil down to how the lines are assembled.
Canadiens coach Claude Julien was adamant on Tuesday, in the wake of his team’s Game 2 loss that evened things up at 1-1, that the biggest change he needs to see from his team is in its effort.
"We need a little bit more from everybody as far as it’s not Xs and Os anymore; it’s how hard you want to compete, how hard you want to go to the net and how hard you want to get to that puck and everything else," he said. "It’s called will and determination and we need to bring that part of our game up.
"When we decide to compete and we’re skating hard, we’re getting chances and we’re a different-looking team than the team that you saw for the first two periods last night."
The one we saw through the first two periods of Monday’s game couldn’t find a way to break out up the middle of the ice or penetrate Pittsburgh’s defence to get to the danger areas of the offensive zone.
Max Domi said Tuesday the Penguins deserve some credit for that, but he also knows the Canadiens have some adjustments to make to activate their speed game.
"It’s a good hockey team over there," the 25-year-old said. "Obviously, they know we’re a fast team and they’re clogging it up, they’re standing up and kind taking away the neutral zone so we can’t really wind it up a little bit. They’re getting pucks in deep and we’ve got to find a way to give our D a bit more time so we can come back in our zone and be an out and get the puck and get to our transition game a little better. Overall, we just need the puck a little bit more and [to] play with some more confidence. And I think that just comes with experience. Game 3 is going to be a different story and we’re going to be ready to go."
And yes, with the matchups shifting to Julien’s favour for Games 3 and 4, he does have some line tweaks planned.
"There’s no doubt that we have to be ready for changes," he said.
There were times in Game 2 that Julien put Phillip Danault with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen, times when he placed Domi or Nick Suzuki with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar, but much of that appeared to be related to all the penalties the Canadiens took and giving penalty killers rest while getting other players who don’t kill penalties some of the ice-time they were missing.
Now it’s clear the deck will be shuffled from the onset of Game 3.
"I have all day to think about it," said Julien.
We’ll see what he comes out with on Wednesday after the Canadiens made Tuesday’s practice an optional one.
Kotkaniemi the biggest positive so far
It was easy to lose sight of the biggest objective for the Canadiens in these playoffs, especially after they pulled out an improbable win over the Penguins in Game 1.
This is about a young team gaining experience and players who will have a huge impact on their future growing into their roles.
To see that process unfolding the way it is for Jesperi Kotkaniemi is a huge positive for the organization. Think about this player’s journey to this point: from being chosen third overall by the Canadiens at the 2018 draft to being dropped into the fire as the youngest player in the NHL months later to an injury-plagued and confidence-shattering sophomore season that ended with a demotion to the American Hockey League and a spleen injury to stepping into the playoffs and scoring two of the team’s four goals so far.
The Canadiens want Kotkaniemi to develop into a top centre and the experience he’s gaining right now is crucial to that process.
"He looks great," says Domi. "The confidence that KK is playing with is great. He’s working hard every shift. Not that he didn’t before, but I’ve always said the game gets easier as you get older and you can see that. But he came in at such a young age and the sky’s really the limit for his potential. So, we’re very lucky to have him and I think this is the best time to learn is playoff hockey and playing against one of the most experienced teams and two of the best players in the world. He showcased himself very well in the first two games, two massive goals, and he’s going to be a big part of this team if we’re going to come out on top here."
Think about what it meant to Kotkaniemi to be sitting next to Domi as he said that. Think about what it means to him to be considered an important part of the team.
It’s huge, because for large portions of the last two seasons, Kotkaniemi – not unlike any other player his age – had a hard time accepting just how difficult it is to gain the coach’s confidence at this level.
He has it now, and it’s hard to think of anything more positive that’s come out of these two games than that.
The big guns have to step up
Whether it’s Tatar or Gallagher, or Domi and Jonathan Drouin, the Canadiens clearly need more from their top offensive players.
"Personally, I can bring a lot more to the table," Domi said, "and I’m looking forward to Game 3."
Drouin also knows he’s got to be more involved. Just looking at the five-on-five numbers from Game 2 (according to www.naturalstattrick.com), he had zero shots, zero scoring chances, zero rush chances, zero rebound attempts and, well, that’s just far too many zeroes.
“I’m working hard, I’m trying my best," he said. "I’ve got to be sharper with the puck and make better plays, but I’m skating, I’m trying to finish my checks. It’s playoff hockey, everyone on our team is, and I’m a part of that as well.”
The Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., native spelled out what he and his teammates need to do better come Game 3.
"The way our team is built and the way we play, we’re on speed and, like Claude said, will and determination," Drouin said. "We’ve got to be on pucks, we’ve got to pounce, we gotta do all these things. I think if we’re not doing those, we don’t give [ourselves] any chance to win no matter who we’re playing. We have fast forwards and when we’re forechecking and the Ds are pushing the wingers on the side, that’s when we’re at our best. And I think we have to find a way to bring it like that third period [of Game 2] where it’s simple hockey but it’s effective hockey. We have the puck, we’re cycling down low and we got way more shots than we did in the first 40 minutes. And if we can stick to that and just play that way, obviously build that through the next game on the third period that we had, we should be fine. We’ve gotta skate, skate, skate against this team and make sure we’re pressuring them."