Canadiens plagued by worrisome defence through first four games

Anthony Mantha scored his sixth goal of the season and the Detroit Red Wings doubled up the Montreal Canadiens.

MONTREAL—The sequence began with a wide-open look for Andreas Athanasiou and ended with a power-play goal for one of the National Hockey League’s hottest shooters in Anthony Mantha.

In between, Mantha parked himself about 50 feet away from Carey Price and had a clean opportunity to one-time his lethal slap shot into the net. Price got his pad on it, but the puck was syphoned back to the point, where it was passed back to Mantha for another crack at it — the Quebec-born winger made no mistake the second time.

His shot into the top part of Price’s net was the fifth power-play goal the Montreal Canadiens had allowed in three-and-a-half games, and it gave the Detroit Red Wings a lead they never relinquished in their 4-2 win at the Bell Centre on Thursday.

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It was a sample of how out of sorts the Canadiens have been in different aspects of their game since the puck dropped on the regular season on Oct. 3.

On the penalty kill, Montreal defenceman Jeff Petry says there’s too much separation between him and his teammates.

“They’re making one pass and we’re getting too high or too stretched out and it’s opening up the seams,” he adds. “I think we need to stay tight until there is the opportunity off of a shot to jump on pucks. I think what we do really well is pressure up ice, but when we get caught we’re being too aggressive when they have full control.”

What the Canadiens are doing at 5-on-5, where they proved to be a dominant team last season, is just as problematic. The defencemen are fighting the puck, the forwards aren’t supporting it well enough and passes are frequently landing on the sticks of the opposition.

Thursday’s game made it four-of-four that the Canadiens recorded at least 10 giveaways. It was also a fourth-straight game in which they allowed at least 30 shots on net.

Last season, they allowed the 19th-most shots on average (31.1). This season, sample size be damned, only the New York Rangers have allowed more shots per game than the Canadiens — improving from 39.7 shots against on average through their first three games to 38.3 against after allowing 34 to Detroit.

It’s no coincidence the 1-1-2 Canadiens have been scored on 17 times.

“We’re not sharp,” said Montreal coach Claude Julien after Thursday’s game. “Mentally, we’re making a lot mistakes and they’re mistakes that are costing us. I think our transition game is suffering, too.

“Our attention to detail in the neutral zone isn’t there. It’s a combination of everything. It’s all good to say it’s the defencemen, but our forwards need to be available for passes, too. There’s times where the defencemen can move the puck quicker, but they’re also having trouble finding an opening to get the puck to someone. It always comes back to the same thing when we look at our games and review them; we see that we’re not sharp with our decisions. When things are like that, no matter what team you’re on, it’s going effect your transition and your defensive game. You look at the goals against tonight, for us the errors are glaring and the lack of a given player getting their job done is obvious, too.”

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It’s not just newcomer Ben Chiarot, who’s clearly struggling in his own end and on the penalty kill. Nor is it solely on the mix of four third-pairing defencemen, who have all had their issues in one game or another.

The top pairing of Victor Mete and Shea Weber had a tough start to the season against the Hurricanes in Carolina last Thursday and they got worked over in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday. And then there’s Montreal’s top line of Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher, which was pulled apart one period into the loss to Detroit, just like it was pulled apart after half the game in Buffalo.

Danault understands there’s a problem.

“I think we’ve got to find each other,” he said. “Our neutral-zone play, our speed — we got killed there in this game. We just have to get back on the same page. I think we’re too spread out and we’re kind of on our own individual pages right now. We need to work on it.”

It’s not all bad. If it was, the Canadiens wouldn’t have accumulated four out of eight available points in the standings.

Jonathan Drouin, who had a concerning pre-season after closing out last season with just one goal in his final 26 games, extended his point streak to four games. Linemate Joel Armia, who had only 13 goals in 57 games last season, had a goal and an assist against Detroit after scoring two goals against Buffalo. Montreal’s power play, which finished 30th in the 31-team league in 2018-19, connected for yet another goal to extend its streak to four games. And the team has managed to erase deficits in all of its games, too.

That’s stuff to build on in addition to ironing out the kinks in other areas.

Julien said the team is going to work on all of it in the video room ahead of a third game in four nights — one that should be their toughest, with the Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues in town for a Hockey Night in Canada showdown Saturday at the Bell Centre.

Price hopes the team will find its mojo before then.

“We just need to find a way to play better,” he said. “It’s a pretty easy solution.”

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