TORONTO — Mark this down as the first time Montreal’s power play has upset anybody all year.
Truth be told, it almost certainly had more to do with how offended Alain Vigneault was with his own team’s performance that, without prompting, he questioned why the Canadiens continued to play top players against his Philadelphia Flyers late in the lopsided loss Friday that evened their first-round series.
“I saw towards the end of the game there where Kirk Muller there — he’s got a 5-0 lead — and he puts his No. 1 power play on the ice,” said Vigneault. “We had embarrassed ourselves enough, I don’t think we needed to get embarrassed more. I’m going to make sure our team is very aware of that next game.”
First, let’s peel back the layers here: The Flyers were stunningly ineffective in Game 2, watching Montreal build a 30-10 advantage in even-strength attempts over the first 20 minutes along with a 2-0 lead.
“The first period, that’s where we lost the game,” said Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux. “Then we were just trying to catch up to them. It wasn’t our best effort.”
It didn’t get much better after the Flyers failed to cash on a five-on-three power play that lasted 98 seconds early in the second period and then saw emerging young star goaltender Carter Hart mercilessly pulled for veteran Brian Elliott.
Put it this way, Philadelphia was full value for a 5-0 loss.
So Vigneault, a veteran of many playoff wars, had to be looking for something to seize on when he jumped in front of the Zoom camera before any of his players post-game. He obviously knew that turning the conversation back on the Habs would shield his players from scrutiny while putting Muller under even more of a spotlight as he fills in for the ailing Claude Julien on an interim basis.
Muller responded to the complaint by correctly pointing out that the Habs have work to do on a flailing power play and don’t have much chance to do so with games scheduled for Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday in this accelerated playoff format.
“I would never disrespect anybody but we’re in the playoffs and you look at the first series against Pittsburgh, our power play wasn’t that great,” said Muller. “I felt that if this was during the season it would be a different story, but we have no practice here. We’ve got to keep working on it. I totally understand if that was his comments — I was probably expecting it — but my job is to make this team as good as it can be right now.
“I had to keep getting some of these guys that haven’t been productive, they’re starting to feel it, and I’ve got to focus on our guys in that situation.”
The Canadiens did manage to break through with Tomas Tatar and Jesperi Kotkaniemi power-play goals during Friday’s game, but they’ve still cashed on just three of 19 opportunities in these playoffs.
What had to worry Philadelphia most was the imbalance in play at even strength. The ice was tilted decisively against the top seeds in the Eastern Conference as they generated just 38 per cent of expected goals and 41 per cent of shot attempts.
“They handed it to us pretty badly tonight,” said Flyers forward Kevin Hayes.
“I don’t think we underestimated them,” added teammate Matt Niskanen. “It was pretty clear, though, that they’re at a higher level that we are right now.”
That’s why Vigneault was playing every motivational card at his disposal. He coached the Canadiens for three seasons early in his career and understands how to direct a storyline under the playoff glare.
Plus, before distracting us with the power-play complaints, he was honest about what happened here at Scotiabank Arena: “They outworked us, they outplayed us, they outexecuted us, so at the end of the day we got our butts kicked today.”