MONTREAL— It’s the type of thing you never want to hear from a coach, let alone twice in a two-minute-and-35-second press conference.
On Thursday, Claude Julien was asked to explain how his Montreal Canadiens blew a two-goal lead for the 13th time this season, how they blew a multi-goal lead for a fourth time in the last six games and for a second time in a loss to the New York Rangers at the Bell Centre this season, and he led with the words, “I have no idea.”
He’s a Stanley Cup-winning coach. He’s a coach that helped squeeze career-years out of more than half his roster to make the Canadiens one of the most surprising teams in the league last season — even if they finished just shy of a playoff berth with 96 points. And his tactics have helped this group generate the most shot attempts and the most high-danger scoring chances in the league this season, according to naturalstattrick.com.
But they have also played a hand in Montreal allowing the seventh-most goals against, in the team’s penalty kill ranking 20th and its power play 21st and in its inability to close games out.
You want a coach in this situation to say it’s his job to find solutions to these problems, but this was Julien at his most exasperated, with his team losing 5-2 to New York—and losing more precious ground in the playoff race (with 16 games remaining, the Canadiens are now nine points back of the Toronto Maple Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division and just as many behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild-card position in the East).
And it showed when one reporter asked if he thought Carey Price might be starting to get worn down a bit after the goaltender made his NHL-leading 55th start, his 11th consecutive start, and his 17th start in Montreal’s last 18 games.
“I’m not even going there,” said Julien. “Guys… Ask questions that make sense. To me, he’s had a day off between every game and he doesn’t skate in the morning. He made some unbelievable saves tonight, so we’re going to look at one goal that went through and say, ‘Is he tired?’ How about the saves he made? Come on, guys. Really.”
Julien was right not to point the finger at Price, who made 29 (mostly excellent) saves and afterwards took ownership for allowing Adam Fox’s game-winning goal—a floating wrist shot from the blue line that went through traffic and slipped right through him.
“It hit me,” Price said after he was asked if the puck had touched anything in front of him.
Julien was given a chance to own his role in this devastating pattern the Canadiens have had since start of the season, but he chose to blame his players instead.
“We’re able to play 40 minutes, but we’re not able to play 60,” the coach said. “We encourage the players to play 60 minutes. We tell them to play on their toes, not on their heels in the third period. ‘Try to play a third period like we did in the first two.’ But it just doesn’t happen.
“At a certain point, you look at the goals we give up and we’re on our heels.
“I can’t play for the players. Inevitably, it’s got to come from them, the decision has to go to them to stop saying there’s a lack of confidence and to start playing the right way. There’s nothing else I can say, because we keep asking the players to play 60 minutes the same way.”
It’s not as if the 18 skaters dressing for all these games are saying to themselves, “Forget 60 minutes, let’s just play for 40.”
They were in the room talking about how disappointed they were in themselves for allowing this storyline to play out as it did once again.
“It’s embarrassing,” said Tomas Tatar, who matched his career high of 58 points (scored in 80 games last season) with a goal and an assists in his 66th game this season. “We have to play better.”
Phillip Danault said, “It’s very disappointing. It’s hard to understand. I don’t feel we were playing a bad game, I didn’t feel we were playing on our heels, but we have to find a solution.”
It’s not going to play well with them that Julien was given a chance (in French and in English) to take some accountability for this loss and opted not to.
When asked if this trend of blowing leads persists — the Canadiens have lost a league-leading 10 times when up by at least a goal going into the third period — as a result of the players not having the urgency needed to close out the game, Julien repeated, “I don’t know.”
“And the reason I say I don’t know is because our game plan is to go out there and play 60 minutes the same way,” he continued. “We ask the players to play the same way. We talk about the things we need to do — even going into the third period — to keep going after these guys, ‘Keep putting pucks behind their Ds, let’s throw puck at their net.’ We have lots of chances around their net-front area, it could have easily been 3-0, 4-0 if we bury our chances.
“We have to make those things happen, and they’re not and that’s why were frustrated right now. As players, as a coaching staff, you try and help ‘em out and it’s not happening right now. So that’s where our challenges are.”
It’s Julien’s challenge to figure out how to get the Canadiens to respond. It’s his challenge to help them break the habits that have all but undone their season. And he’d be wise to avoid using the words “I have no idea” when he’s asked to explain their issues or offer solutions.