MONTREAL — Montreal’s 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets in Canadiens coach Claude Julien’s
debut return was revealing in several ways.
Once you get past the result, which clearly speaks to where Montreal’s confidence currently lies, the tactics were a considerable departure from what we saw under Julien’s predecessor Michel Therrien.
Julien had said on Friday that he wouldn’t immediately bombard the Canadiens with too much information. He added that he would let the team play largely on instinct until he had the time to implement his adjustments. So when Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry set up behind his own net and uncharacteristically launched a pass right up the gut of the ice to forward Tomas Plekanec in the opening minutes of Saturday’s matinee, you had to wonder if it was by design.
When defenceman Alexei Emelin did the same thing a few minutes later, finding forward Brendan Gallagher through the middle of the ice on the breakout, it became clear that type of zone exit was strategic.
Until Julien confirmed it after the game, one could only assume another adjustment included an aggressiveness from the team’s defence—especially in the offensive zone—that hadn’t been featured in the last number of weeks under Therrien.
The coach didn’t have to say anything to make it clear that the 22nd-ranked penalty kill diverted from setting up in a diamond formation. It became obvious, after Montreal’s third successful kill of the game, that going back to a classic box formation was intentional.
Not everything worked, which is understandable. A seamless transition would’ve been too much to expect from Julien, who had one practice with the team in the lead up to Saturday’s game and had to spend most of it getting the players back up to speed after five days of inactivity thanks to the bye week.
In spite of his Canadiens being out-chanced handily, outshot 33-20, out-hit 48-33, out-drawn 35-21 in the faceoff circle and forced into committing 18 turnovers, Julien focused on the positive.
“I think this team is a much better team than you saw today, and they will be better,” said Julien.
“We’re lucky we got two straight days of practice here before our next game, and hopefully it gives us some time to accomplish a little bit more,” he added.
There were other differences that stood out, specifically to do with how Julien deployed his players.
Under Therrien, the Canadiens had a four-line approach. On Saturday, the matchups took on greater significance, especially with Julien being able to dictate them as coach of the home team.
That’s why Plekanec led Montreal’s forwards with 24 shifts, starting many of them against Winnipeg’s top line of Mathieu Perreault, Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine. It’s also why Alex Galchenyuk started 70 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone.
Perhaps the most interesting sequence of the game, which offered an insight into Julien’s style, featured Galchenyuk.
The 23-year-old had a rough shift in the defensive zone in the 11th minute of the first period. His line with Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov got hemmed in for over 30 seconds and things culminated with him gifting the puck to Laine, who went in for a Grade A opportunity that was snuffed out by Canadiens goaltender Carey Price’s glove.
There was a television timeout after the whistle blew the play dead. Instead of parking Galchneyuk and Co. coming out of it, Julien put them right back on the ice.
The result: a goal from Andrei Markov, assisted on by Galchenyuk and Pacioretty.
In the second period, Canadiens defenceman Nathan Beaulieu had an egregious turnover on the power play. He was the last man back and he tried to deke Winnipeg’s Joel Armia, who stripped him of the puck and charged down the ice to tie the game 1-1.
But there was Beaulieu on the very next shift, rushing in from the offensive blue line to make an attempt at finishing off a letter-perfect passing play between Plekanec and Galchenyuk. He was inches from scoring.
When asked about whether or not we could expect to see such forgiveness all the time, Julien said, “I think you can expect that from me, but at the same time I’m not going to be generous here.
“Mistakes are a part of the game sometimes, and you look at what kind of mistake it is. But you also have to, with younger players and certain players, you gotta have some patience.
“This is the new NHL where—with the salary cap and everything else—you have young players in your lineup. Part of it is: if you want them to be better, you have to live with some of those mistakes.”
It seems evident Julien will have to live with at least a few more before he has the Canadiens playing like his team. But it was also revealed on Saturday that he can live with that reality.
“The players started to understand what we wanted to do,” he said. “The loss hurts, but I saw positives. We have things to work on and we’ll get better.”