Canadiens’ Kirk Muller prepared to lead in coach Claude Julien’s absence

Sportsnet's Eric Engels joined Hockey Central to discuss how the Montreal Canadiens surprised many with their play in the play-in round and in Game 1 against the Philadelphia Flyers, and whether their success can continue.

TORONTO — This isn’t all new to Kirk Muller, a former NHL coach who spent three years leading a not-so-stellar Carolina Hurricanes team to an 80-80-27 record from 2011-2014.

And Muller — as well as assistants Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson — aren’t about to flip the Montreal Canadiens’ game plan on its ear, down 1-0 in their series with the Philadelphia Flyers, and with head coach Claude Julien resting at home after the 60-year-old suffered a cardiac event that required him to be hospitalized and have a stent inserted into one of his coronary arteries.

But this is foreign territory for Captain-turned-Coach Kirk.

Muller, a native of Kingston, Ont., played 127 Stanley Cup Playoff games — he even won the Cup as a member of the Canadiens. But he’s never commandeered the bench for a game of this magnitude.

Granted, he doesn’t need to tweak the systems or alter the philosophy for Game 2 on Friday.

Muller does have to press all the right buttons at the right times, though, and there’s no underselling how challenging of a task that will be. Especially against a triumvirate of highly experienced head coaches on the Flyers bench.

Even if Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said on Thursday that he doesn’t anticipate it to be much of a factor for any of the remaining games of this series, for which Julien won’t be available.

“Most NHL teams have a head coach, but also one of the associate or assistant coaches who has also been a head coach,” he said. “In my case, I have two (Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo).

“Claude has Kirk Muller who has already been a head coach. I can’t speak for the players, but I can speak for the coaches. They prepared to face the Flyers before the series, and to me, they’ll continue with what they already prepared.”

Right.

But what you decide doesn’t always match what you prepare after the puck drops and the game develops.

“I think the key, really, is that we’re not going to change much on our X’s and O’s,” said Muller on Friday. “We’re built a certain way and there’s things that, when we do well, when we play fast, when we play north and we’re aggressive on the puck and all that, that stuff doesn’t change.

“What does is, which guys are willing to do it… they gotta play. And so that’s the part where I gotta read that. There’s always little tweaks but we’ve got to recognize which guys are going and which guys aren’t. So, there’s no hard feelings; it’s the playoffs. The way our team is built is we need everybody.

“We don’t rely on a few guys and that’s okay and that’s the strength of our hockey team. Strength in numbers. We’ve got a really good group of guys, we’ve got a lot of leadership.

“They’ve done an amazing job of keeping this group focused in the bubble here, and it’s our job to get the guys prepared for the start of the game… and playing hard to break through the 60 minutes or 60 minutes-plus.”

It’s with minds at ease that the Canadiens are approaching the task.

Muller said he spoke with Julien Thursday evening and that the coach appeared to be in good spirits and feeling well, all things considered.

Muller also said that although Julien won’t be coaching the team, he still might be of assistance.

“I won’t be surprised to get a text from him or a phone call in between periods,” Muller said. “From the tone of his voice last night, he seemed good. And I think he’s probably going to have enough energy today to focus in. Most of our conversation last night was about hockey. He’s fired up.

“A lot of fun things going on right now. So, if he’s physically able to, you know he’s going to be tuning into today’s game.”

That’s a comfort to Canadiens players, too, who intend to use Julien’s absence to help rally them.

“They want to play hard for him,” said Muller. “Our staff wants to do well for him and get him back here. So, that’s our biggest focus right now and that’s what we’re going to focus on…We want to keep this thing rolling so we get Claude back.”

And Muller feels prepared to help the Canadiens do that.

“[Knowing Julien’s doing better] made it easy for me to move forward in this situation,” he said. “Guys know we believe in what we’re going to do.”

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