Canadiens notebook: Is Montreal’s third defence pairing up to task?

Sportsnet's Kyle Bukauskas and Eric Engels discuss what the Montreal Canadiens did well in Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins and what they can do better come Game 2 to shut down the Penguins offence.

TORONTO — Coach Claude Julien elected to give his team the day off from practice after his Montreal Canadiens took a 1-0 series lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins with a 3-2 overtime win on Saturday.

We’d call that a wise decision, considering the intensity of the game and just how taxing it was after a near five-month layoff. A day after the Canadiens had to kill seven penalties, after playing almost a complete extra period, and with all the excitement and nerves zapping some of that precious energy as well, it was a no-brainer.

We can think of three players on the Montreal side who were likely most thankful for the rest. Start with 34-year-old captain Shea Weber, who played over 31 minutes. Then there’s the overtime hero, Jeff Petry, who logged 30:56.

And Ben Chiarot played close to 29 minutes, too.

“It was definitely a tough challenge,” Chiarot said via text. “Happy to have a day off and go at it again.”

They’ll need the rest.

As Canadiens assistant captain Brendan Gallagher put it on Sunday, Montreal’s three best defencemen have a herculean task to keep Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Pittsburgh’s world-class offence in check.

But Gallagher was impressed with what he saw from them in Game 1.

“I mean, that wasn’t the easiest job, but all three of them stepped up and had great games for us,” he said. “We’re definitely gonna rely on them a lot to continue to do that as we go on here and find a way to grind our way through this series. But pretty much all year those guys have been steady as they come back there, so there’s no doubt in our mind that we can rely on them.

“But certainly you look at the forward group on the other side, they’ve got a tough challenge. And we can help them out as much as we can, but those guys–you know without a doubt they’re up to the task.”

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Is Montreal’s third defence pairing up to the task?

Not that it was a costly performance from Xavier Ouellet and Victor Mete, but both players appeared in over their heads for much of the game.

Granted, the Canadiens controlled close to 57 per cent of the shot attempts when they were on the ice together at five-on-five. But Ouellet and Mete started almost all of their shifts in the offensive zone, and spent the majority of their on-the-fly shifts getting pushed off pucks behind their own net and chasing the Penguins around in front of Carey Price.

Ouellet did manage to block seven shots, and he played a role in helping the Canadiens kill six of seven penalties. But Mete had a jittery Stanley Cup playoff debut.

Still, Julien doesn’t appear inclined to turn to Cale Fleury, the 20-year-old who played 41 games and impressed in most of them with the Canadiens this season.

“We brought a bunch of players here to be part of our team, in case of injuries and stuff like that and, as we speak, you know we don’t feel he’s ready for the top six,” said Julien. “That doesn’t mean it won’t change right now, but we started with the top six that we thought would help us best right now.

“But he’s a young player, he’s going to continue to evolve, he’s going to continue to get some experience and, you know, we see good things for him. But right now, it’s about putting the best lineup possible here to win a hockey game and hopefully a series.”

Match game misplay

We spent much of the lead up to this series speaking with Julien about the disadvantage he has in the matchups—not only due to the talent and experience discrepancy between the powerhouse Penguins and his underdog Canadiens, but also related to not having the last change for three of the five games.

But it isn’t much of an advantage for the Penguins if they don’t intend to use it.

The way things worked out, Canadiens shutdown centre Phillip Danault, and his line with Gallagher and Tomas Tatar, played over 60 per cent of their five-on-five minutes against Crosby’s line with Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary. And Nick Suzuki’s line with Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia played more against Malkin’s line with Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker than any other Penguins trio.

It was as if Julien was the one with the advantage.

Not that he wants to get too deep into the matchup game.

“I don’t know what [Sullivan’s] philosophy is,” Julien said on Sunday, “ours is pretty simple, I’ve been open with it; I don’t think we’re a very good team when we’re trying to hard-match and then switching on the fly all the time and so on and so forth, so we’ve tried to build our team accordingly. Meaning the young guys like [Jesperi] Kotkaniemi–he’s got two really reliable veterans on each side of him.

“Suzuki, as you know, was most likely our best forward last night, so you don’t really have to worry so much about him. But his experience compared to guys that he played against…the Crosby’s, you know, is going to be a challenge…I think we feel like we’re four lines deep…”

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The kids are alright

It’s obvious enough what Saturday’s experience did for Kotkaniemi and Suzuki. Scoring and having such a tangible impact on the outcome of their very first playoff game had to be a massive confidence boost for the two youngest players on the Canadiens.

But of equal importance is the confidence their performance gives the entire team moving forward.

“That was great to see,” said Gallagher. “I mean, obviously, we started that game a little bit on our heels, we needed our goaltender to be strong. But then KK stepped up and then scores a beautiful goal. You know, going to the net, finding a way to put the puck in the net. And Suzie, as that game went on, he just became more and more of a presence. It’s pretty, pretty encouraging for our group to see those two young kids step up in a spotlight like that. And obviously you know who’s on the other side, so it’s not an easy challenge. But we’re going to need them going forward, and I think that’s an encouraging sign obviously for the organization, but for our team as well.”

Balance out the emotions

As Chiarot put it, the Canadiens don’t want to get stuck on that rollercoaster of emotions—of getting too high on that winning feeling or too low after a loss.

Julien emphasized the importance of his young team filing Game 1 away and living in the moment.

“Our message is clear: it’s one game at a time,” he said. “It’s one game at a time and let’s go win the next one. Playoff hockey—it’s about that. It’s not about getting carried away with one win and forgetting that you have to play the next game. But we’re focused, we understand that it’s far from over. We also understand that there’s a team on the other side that has the ability to come back and win some hockey games. So, we’re very respectful but, at the same time, we’re very determined to come out there next game and continue to play as hard as we did last night.”

Gallagher knows the Penguins will come with a determined effort in Game 2, as well.

“Experience matters,” he said. “I mean, we know we’re playing a group that’s probably the most experienced team in the entire playoffs and they’re not going to get rattled by much.

“But for our team, you go through things, and we went through last night and that’s how you gain experience. When you go through those moments, you can fall back on those things and right now it’s important for the guys—you know, the leaders in our locker room right now—to have that understanding to relay that message that Game 1 is great, we found a way to win, but in the playoffs there’s gonna be ups and downs and it’s time to move on. Wake up today and you’re preparing for Game 2. It’s essentially Game 1 doesn’t really mean anything if you’re unable to find a way to win Game 2.

“So, we know who we’re playing on the other side. We know what we have in our locker room. We’re happy with what we got, and our young guys are going to do just fine. Now it’s just a matter of getting that experience, and I think a game like last night goes a long way for that.”

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