Canadiens notebook: Big 3 on defence must get up to speed

Morgan Rielly had a goal and two assists, and Alexander Kerfoot scored twice to help the Maple Leafs to a 4-2 win over the Canadiens in their return to NHL action.

We thought this was as good a time as any to cover off a number of different subjects — after the Montreal Canadiens played and lost their first game in months, and before they step on the ice for practice on Wednesday.

So let’s get into what the Canadiens learned on Tuesday and how they can apply those lessons moving into their Stanley Cup Qualifier series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Where the game was lost

They say some pictures are worth 1,000 words, but we’ll try to make these ones say just 700.

When coach Claude Julien talked about rust following his Canadiens losing 4-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs in their first and only exhibition game in over four months, when he said, "We played a little passive a little too much tonight and gave a good team with a lot of skill and a lot of speed some time to make plays," he was referring to what we’re about to break down in detail.

Let’s start with this first sequence at the end of the very first shift of the game.

See defenceman Ben Chiarot choosing to step up and make a pinch on Toronto’s Mitch Marner, who’s in control of the puck and positioned so far away from Chiarot he doesn’t even need a mask to be respecting social distancing protocols.

This is half of a bad decision because Chiarot has no chance of closing this play off, and only half of one because at least he read that teammate Brendan Gallagher was backing him up at the blue line. Where the rest of this goes bad is that Gallagher somehow reads — and we’d call it wishful thinking — that Chiarot is going to make a successful pinch and he gets caught staring at the play for the one second it takes John Tavares to move from right in front of him to right behind him.

You know the rest. Tavares takes the puck down the ice on a 2-on-1 from his own side of centre and sets up Ilya Mikheyev with what might be the easiest goal of his career.

It’s easy to pin the second goal on Tomas Tatar, who makes a blind backhand pass at the offensive blue line that Kasperi Kapanen feasts on for a half breakaway down the ice, but that’s not the only egregious error on this Canadiens power play.

The other big mistake is made by Nick Suzuki, who leaves Kapanen to Shea Weber and goes looking for a rebound off a save he’s convinced Carey Price will make. He’s staring at the play instead of looking for Alexander Kerfoot, the Leafs forward who’s lurking out of frame. You know, the one who has an unimpeded path to the puck when all is said and done.

And yes, Tatar, who turned the puck over, is beat up the ice by Kerfoot. But this is a classic over-backcheck by Suzuki.

Rust? You bet.

A player like Suzuki, who can make a read like the one you see here, typically doesn’t make that kind of mistake.

Toronto’s fourth goal, scored just 1:32 after the Canadiens cut the deficit to 3-2, is the one that probably cost Julien a bit of sleep on Tuesday.

It was so preventable, and here’s why.

Here’s Maple Leafs forward Zach Hyman in anything but a dangerous position. He’s 1-on-2, glued to the boards, and he’s essentially being forced into jamming the puck against the wall and trying to freeze it there or dumping it in.

If Tatar plays this the right way, nothing comes of it.

But the hustle just isn’t there. Tatar’s job is to play this aggressively, with Weber taking away the middle of the ice and giving Hyman no real passing option — or at least none that wouldn’t present too much risk to take on the penalty kill. But Tatar relents and gives Hyman enough time and space to skate this down to the goal line and towards the net, at which point Hyman pivots, turns and finds Morgan Rielly for an easy goal.

Did Jonathan Drouin do enough to tie Rielly up? Absolutely not. Was the goal on Drouin? No. The play never should’ve been allowed to develop to the point that it did.

These are the finer details that only get sorted out through repetition. The kind of details that get lost after 140 days away from game action, but the kind that have to be cleaned up immediately if the Canadiens are going to have a chance in their play-in series against the Penguins.

A defensive conundrum

Julien has a decision to make as far as who he’s going to lean on as a third defence pairing for this series against Pittsburgh, and Victor Mete, Xavier Ouellet and Cale Fleury didn’t make that decision any easier on Tuesday.

It was Ouellet who Julien used most, and his game was largely out of sorts.

You can chalk it up to the long pause, or his 10-day absence from Phase 3 training camp, or the fact he wasn’t good enough to make the team in September and likely hasn’t become a markedly better player since. Whatever it is, Ouellet’s play needs to be much more convincing than it was.

Ditto for Fleury, who won the job over Ouellet at the start of the season but played just 41 games with the Canadiens. He was used sporadically, and he struggled mightily on most of his shifts.

Mete is probably the safest of the three, and he was playing a steady game until he allowed Kerfoot to skate through the slot unimpeded and score Toronto’s third goal.

"I think, overall, our defence is going to play a real big role in the success of our team here against Pittsburgh," said Julien on Wednesday morning. "We’re going to need all of them to be good to start with — whoever we put out there. The way they defend but also the way they move the puck to our forwards is going to be a real big asset for our hockey club.

"Right now, I would tell you we are still looking into finalizing those final positions. But whoever we pick has to defend well and obviously has to move the puck in our transition much better than we did last night. I think if we want to get some offence and a good forecheck going, we’re going to need them to be good quarterbacks back there and allow us to be able to do those things."

It starts at the top

We’re not sure three days is enough time to address all the defensive foibles we saw on Tuesday, and Julien’s biggest problem isn’t going to be choosing who gets to play between Ouellet or Fleury on his third pairing; it’s going to be getting his top three defencemen up to speed.

Because this was anything but a confidence-inspiring performance from Weber, Chiarot and Jeff Petry. And considering how heavily Julien is going to have to lean on them against Pittsburgh, that’s cause for concern.

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A first test passed by Jesperi Kotkaniemi

It’s one thing to impress in Phase 3 training camp, it’s another to do it in a game. Especially for a player who had a brutal sophomore season, one that ended prematurely due to a spleen injury suffered in an American Hockey League game.

Julien said that not too many players hit a high note last night, but it seemed to us Kotkaniemi might have been one of the few that did.

The six-foot-two Finn had some jump in transition, he was particularly sharp on zone exits and he had a dominant shift to help provoke Paul Byron’s third-period goal.

Koktaniemi finished with an assist, a plus-1 rating, a shot on net, two hits and he won two of five faceoffs in 13:24 of ice-time. He wasn’t perfect but he was involved, and he was arguably better in this exhibition game than he was in any of the 36 games he spent with the Canadiens this season.

But don’t just take our word for it…

"Well, I think you saw a big difference in KK tonight, as far as where he was [this season] when we sent him to Laval," Julien said. "He’s getting better, and he’s still a young player. He just turned 20 and, again, I think he’s progressing fairly well. In my eyes, coming back [to Phase 3 training] camp, I said I was impressed with the pace of his game and everything else. So I think that part of it [was impressive] for the first game for him, as well, in even longer than the rest of our guys because he was injured before they even stalled the season or put it to a halt.

"I think we definitely need to give him an opportunity here to continue to keep his confidence but, as I said before, I think he’s heading in the right direction. So that’s encouraging."

Odds and ends

• The biggest positive for the Canadiens to take away from their game against Toronto was the way Price played.

If you merely looked at the stat sheet and saw that Price was beaten on four of Toronto’s 23 shots, you’d have missed how reassuring his performance actually was.

• Another positive, which was largely overshadowed by an inept power play that went 0-for-6 and allowed two goals, was the work of the penalty kill.

The Canadiens held the Leafs to five shots and limited them to just two quality scoring chances over the course of their three power plays. Holding them to zero goals was a feat in and of itself.

• Tough break for Alex Belzile, the 28-year-old Canadiens forward who was limited to just three shifts in the game before he absorbed a devastating hit from Jake Muzzin that kept him from returning to the game.

Julien said he chose to dress Belzile as his 13th forward because of the energy he plays with and because he’s less familiar with his game than he is with that of some of his other extras, like Ryan Poehling, Charles Hudon and Jake Evans.

Here’s a player who’s fought very hard to continue his professional career in North America, a player who’s tenacious and who got off to a great start with the Laval Rocket — scoring seven goals and 14 points in 20 games — before he tore a pectoral muscle.

It was an injury that required surgery and kept him out of action for six months. You can imagine what the opportunity to play in Tuesday’s game — and to potentially be a depth option Julien calls on — meant to Belzile. Now that opportunity appears to be gone.

He said it…

Drouin was asked to describe what was different or strange about playing in an empty arena after Phillip Danault said Tuesday night that it would require a significant adaptation moving forward.

"There was more ambiance at my Atom BB games in Mont Tremblant," he responded.

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