MONTREAL — Claude Julien was asked about Charlie Lindgren’s performance in Montreal’s 4-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday and his response was that it was a team effort in losing.
The coach played his role, too. And we’re not talking about his decision to start Lindgren over Carey Price, who had stopped 72 of 73 shots in two wins prior to the game against a Blackhawks team that had scraped out an overtime win in Ottawa the night before while the Canadiens were resting and waiting for them in Montreal.
If the Canadiens started this one completely out of sorts, allowing Zack Smith (he of two goals in 40 games) to score two goals in the first nine minutes — and one in comedic fashion thanks to a miscommunication between Lindgren and Tomas Tatar — it was at least in part because Julien didn’t have them as well-prepared as they should have been.
But perhaps the most confounding thing to happen in this one came after Max Domi took a reckless, careless, selfish (or as Julien later referred to it, useless) roughing penalty on Matthew Highmore at the 10:52 mark of the second period. And no, it wasn’t Julien’s decision to park Domi at the end of Montreal’s bench after Alex DeBrincat scored 35 seconds into the ensuing power play.
The real head-scratcher was the coach’s decision to keep Domi on the bench when Smith went off for high-sticking with 4:36 remaining in the middle period.
Julien was asked after the game about how he decided to toe the line between the message he wanted to send to his player and having to rely on an offensive type while trailing in the game.
“I did what I had to do,” the coach responded. “You take a useless penalty like that, there’s consequences.”
When we asked if he was tempted to motivate Domi by telling him he had cost the team a goal and that it was time for him to go out there and get it back with the power play opportunity, Julien said the following:
“Those questions (about) whatever you guys feel like…I did what I had to do, simple as that. I don’t have to explain it more than I did. It’s not the first time he’s taken a bad penalty. There’s consequences, and sometimes those messages (date back a lot further) than the situation right there. And it doesn’t matter who we put on (for the power play) instead of Max. Max is not the guy that’s going to score goals all the time here, so a power play is a five-man unit. It’s as simple as that.”
And this team is made up of 20 players and five coaches and everyone should wear the blame for a performance Julien classified as the team’s worst in 10 games.
We needn’t remind you the Canadiens had lost eight of 10 prior to Wednesday’s debacle.
For as bad as Montreal had started against Chicago, Phillip Danault scored 54 seconds into the second period to get the Canadiens back to 2-1. And even though Domi’s penalty was so ill-timed, and unquestionably worth more time away from the ice than the 35 seconds he spent in the box, he’s the second-highest scoring player on the team and he has to be out there to give you a chance at turning a 3-1 deficit into 3-2 heading to the third period.
Maybe the game plays out differently thereafter, instead of how it actually did — with the Canadiens allowing a goal to Drake Caggiula and getting out-shot 11-6 in the final frame.
“We weren’t there at all. It’s as simple as that,” Julien said. “They’re a team that has good sticks, which was clearly pointed out before the game, but we weren’t there at all. Not at all. We lost our battles for loose pucks, we made bad decisions, and we didn’t deserve a win at all.”
That’s all true.
And Domi, who had apologized for taking a bad penalty and an unsportsmanlike conduct on top of it for a double-minor in the third period of a 4-3 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils back on Nov. 16, should have known better.
The 25-year-old, who blamed himself on that night, added, “I can’t do that, and it won’t happen again.”
But Domi is a feisty player, a player who always plays on the edge, and there was never a doubt he’d slip up again — even if he had only taken 10 minors this season before roughing up Highmore.
“During the play I certainly wasn’t trying to take a penalty,” he said about Wednesday’s situation. “But I watched the replay and it’s a penalty. So that’s how it goes. Unfortunately, they scored on that. You can’t do that — especially in the situation we’re in right now. It is what it is. Coach’s decision, and obviously I can’t afford to do that.”
There was consistency in Julien’s decision.
In Montreal’s 16th game of the season, he held Canadiens leading scorer Tomas Tatar out for most of the second period and all but four shifts in the third of a 3-2 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 7. This was after Tatar had taken minor penalties nine and 10 of the young season — both of them lazy stick infractions.
The thing is, the Canadiens are in a much more desperate situation now than they were then. They needed to turn their two-game win streak into three on Wednesday.
Even Larry David understands that, bad penalties aside, goal scorers need to be on the ice in crunch time.
Considering how they played against Chicago, it might not have mattered who came out on that failed power play while Domi was stapled to the bench.
But Domi has 11 points on the man-advantage this season, nearly twice what Nick Cousins, Jordan Weal and Artturi Lehkonen (six points) have combined for in that department, and he was highly motivated to make up for his error.
“Of course,” Domi said. “I think we’re all sitting there (wanting to do that)…”
But Julien made his decision and held firm to it. He could have gone all the way with it by sitting Domi out for the rest of the game, but with only 20 minutes left for the Canadiens to come back he decided to play him — making the decision to leave him off that power play late in the second even more curious.
We have been outspoken about the job he’s done under the circumstances he’s had to deal with this season. We believe he’s done as well as anyone could with the roster he’s had and the injuries the Canadiens have been hit with.
But Julien’s decision on Wednesday played a role in Montreal’s loss to Chicago, and he should share some of the blame for the outcome.