BROSSARD, Que. — They skated hard, battled and worked, and that’s just how new coach Claude Julien wants the Montreal Canadiens‘ practices to be.
Julien finally got to put the Canadiens through a full workout with no distractions on Monday. It was aimed mostly at convincing his struggling team that tighter defence will lead to more scoring chances on attack.
"He wanted it to be 40 minutes of high pace, high intensity, so when it comes to game time it’s second nature," said defenceman Jeff Petry.
Julien, who replaced Michel Therrien last week, will be seeking a first victory since returning to Montreal when the Canadiens face the Rangers in New York on Tuesday night. His debut saw the club fall 3-1 at home to the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday.
He had only one practice with the team before his first game and it was something of a circus, with fans jammed into the viewing areas at the team’s suburban training centre and two all-sports television stations covering the event live. Another practice Sunday at the Bell Centre was a promotional event in front of 10,000 shrieking kids.
It added to the challenge for Julien to put into effect the changes he hopes will snap the Canadiens out of a 1-6-1 slump in which they have scored only 10 goals, four of them by captain Max Pacioretty and another two from his linemate Alexander Radulov.
Julien wants his team to spend less time in its own zone and more time harrying opposition goaltenders. That starts with getting the puck more quickly on defence and holding onto it longer in the opponent’s end.
"What we want to try to do, and what we did today, is to try to be better defensively for goals against and chances against," he said. "But more than that, if we’re better defensively we can (get) the puck quickly.
"I want us to play with the puck, not without it. I’m looking for puck possession time. It’s not necessarily about analytics, it’s that if we have the puck more, our chances are much better of winning."
It’s a formula that worked for most of the 10 seasons Julien spent with the Boston Bruins before he was replaced by Bruce Cassidy two weeks ago. Boston won a Stanley Cup and reached a final during his time there, although they fell short of a playoff spot the last two seasons.
The Canadiens started the season 13-1-1 and maintained a decent record despite a run of injuries through December and January, but hit a wall of late. That prompted general manager Marc Bergevin to fire fifth-year coach Therrien and bring in Julien, whose first NHL coaching job was with the Canadiens from 2003 to 2006.
There is much that needs fixing. The Canadiens have got no goals and not even many scoring chances or sustained offensive zone pressure from their second, third or fourth lines in the last eight games. They’ve also been lax defensively and at times had spotty goaltending, although Carey Price was sharp against the Jets.
"We’ve got enough skill here, (the offence) will come back," said Julien. "I’m not worried about it.
"We have enough players on this team that can score goals, but we’ve got to start in the right place and that’s when we get the puck back quickly. It remains to be seen, but that’s my belief."
What he hasn’t had enough time for yet is to work on line combinations. Mostly, he has used the units Therrien had in place. He moved Alex Galchenyuk to centre on the first line to start against Winnipeg but had Phillip Danault back in that spot by the third period. Now Galchenyuk is back to the second line with Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron.
"I know he’s a very talented player; my job is to make him better," Julien said of Galchenyuk. "Now I want to work with him on the little aspects of the game that will make him even better."
The slump has narrowed the Canadiens lead in the Atlantic Division to only two points ahead of Ottawa, who have two games in hand.
"It’s what happens when you don’t win games," said Gallagher. "Everyone else in the league seems to be winning except for us and they’re gaining ground.
"If we get back to playing winning hockey, playing our style and doing all the little things Claude and his staff are trying to get across, then we’ll be where we want to be."