MONTREAL— It was a perfect opportunity that was whiffed on by the NHL’s worst power play. A chance to bury a team that had one foot in the grave, and it was just tossed to the wind like it didn’t even matter.
The Montreal Canadiens dominated the first period of their 5-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday. They tilted the ice away from their net and were relentless on the forecheck—creating turnovers, making precision passes, getting quality shots on net and bodies there to capitalize on rebounds. But the Canadiens weren’t able to score on any of their 12 shots in the frame, and despite limiting the Flyers to just one shot on net over those first 20 minutes, the score remained locked at 0-0.
They came out hungry in the second—pushing the pace and resuming where they left off before they broke for intermission. They had 21 shots on net when Flyers forward Jake Voracek interfered with Canadiens rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi. And that’s when a top unit composed of Shea Weber, Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen stepped onto the ice and all but killed whatever momentum the Canadiens had built over the first half of the game.
The result? One weak shot from Drouin, from the left boards, from 40 feet away. It was caught easily by Flyers goaltender Carter Hart.
The result? No shots, but four failed zone entries and four unforced errors. There was also no puck support, no plays made, and no battles won.
It was the only power-play opportunity the Canadiens got in the game. It could have made the difference—in a positive way instead of … well …
“It certainly doesn’t help when you have a power play that generates absolutely nothing,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “We had a good first period, but it’s also there that we should’ve done some damage. We could’ve maybe scored a few goals with the way we dominated in the period, but we came out 0-0. Again, our power play didn’t give us much and then things seemed to turn from there.”
After Konecny scored, James van Riemsdyk tipped a Robert Hagg point-shot to put the Flyers up 2-0. It was early in the third period that Nolan Patrick made it 3-0. And after Domi got the Canadiens on the board, Patrick scored again to make it 4-1.
It was with just over three minutes left, with a Brett Kulak goal reducing the Flyers lead to two goals, that Niemi came off for an extra attacker and the Canadiens pressed as hard as they could to get within a goal.
Tatar fought to keep a play alive, Petry did the same at the blue line, Gallagher won a battle down low and created some space in the slot for Drouin, who got the puck in the slot and had a clean look at the net before shooting it over the crossbar.
It was that type of desperation that was missing from that second-period power play. That type of desperation that’s been seldom seen when the Canadiens have had a chance to skate 5-on-4 this season.
It’s just one element missing from a power play that’s operated at 12.7 per cent through 50 games and shown few signs of life over any extended stretch.
Over its last 11 games, the Canadiens’ power play has scored on just two of 27 opportunities. Frustration with it appears to have reached its peak for Julien.
What’s the problem?
“Obviously the question’s been asked to the players,” Julien started. “They don’t seem to have the answer, and we keep working at trying to find the answer. If we had it, it would be fixed by now. It’s a frustrating power play to watch because you basically put more or less 10 of your best players out there and at the end of the day the decision making and what we do with the puck is not even close to being that.
“It’s hard to explain because we’re a better team at 5-on-5 with those same players than we are 5-on-4, so something there has to get better. The decision making and the choices of plays and those different things have to get better. We’re not a threat at all on the power play, especially tonight. We got a little bit better and the last few games when we had some, but tonight was one power play and it was a dead one.”
Domi said the group knows what it needs to work on but was not forthcoming with any suggestions.
“We’ll keep that to ourselves,” he said.
“I think we have to find our desperation,” said Drouin. “As a power play sometimes we get to feel comfortable because we’re one guy more, but the top power plays in the league are relentless on the puck. They win their battles before setting it up, and I guess what makes a good power play is you have to break it in and set it up before you start generating chances. If you’re not battling, you’re not winning those puck battles, you’re not going to win anything.”
You’re also going to eventually lose games because of it.
Remarkably, the Canadiens’ power (less) play hasn’t cost them their place in the playoff picture at any point. As of this writing they’re in the first wild-card position in the Eastern Conference, with a one-point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins, a five-point lead over the Buffalo Sabres, and they’re tied in points with the Boston Bruins and just one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But if Montreal doesn’t start building something positive in this department, it’s going to cost the team a lot more than the two points they lost on Saturday.