MONTREAL — “I wanted to win the game more than I wanted to celebrate it,” said Claude Julien about his 1,000th behind the bench of an NHL team.
That’s why he asked the Montreal Canadiens to recognize his accomplishment of becoming the 27th coach in NHL history to reach that milestone in as discreet a manner as possible instead of holding an elaborate pre-game ceremony that would’ve made him the centre of attention.
The team obliged with a brief acknowledgment on the scoreboard coming out of the game’s first commercial break; a video that showed Julien posing with his wife and daughter after being awarded a silver puck by owner Geoff Molson and general manager Marc Bergevin. It was one wish granted.
As for the other…
“Our execution was so poor,” said Julien of the Canadiens’ 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders, which had them booed off the ice.
Julien’s plan was to keep Islanders captain John Tavares off the board; to do it by controlling the puck and setting the pace of play.
Tavares had other plans, assisting on the game’s second goal and adding an empty-netter on his eighth shot attempt of the evening.
Julien had talked at length on Thursday morning about the aggressiveness and desperation that lent to the success the Canadiens enjoyed in a 3-2 win over the New York Rangers in their most recent game. He was hoping the team would keep momentum on its side.
Did the Canadiens follow?
“I hope not, not with the results,” said Julien. “I’m not going to stand here and say I liked our game, because [I] didn’t. As I mentioned, we looked like two different teams from New York to tonight.
“First of all, it starts with puck management. Our first passes weren’t even tape to tape. It was poor execution [Thursday night] and when you have poor execution you get no offence. I understand that we’ve had trouble scoring goals and I get that, but it starts with execution, it starts with determination — put pucks to the net and going to the net. Like I said, we didn’t get much of that until a little bit into the third period. We started doing some of that on certain shifts. But we didn’t do enough of it to give ourselves a chance to win.”
The evidence is damning.
Never mind failing to score a goal; seven players on the Canadiens, including a line comprised of talented forwards Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron, failed to register a shot on net.
Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty, who had two shots on net and four more attempts that were blocked or missed, called a spade a spade.
“It seems like, at times — I’ve said it before — when we don’t have confidence, we’re just content with going out there and making it look like we’re working hard,” he said. “You gotta want to be a difference maker. Every time you’re on the ice, you gotta want to change the game. Whether that comes with confidence — I’m not sure how to get it, but everyone’s gotta have that mindset and it’s obvious that that’s not the mindset.”
The time to find it is running out.
The Canadiens, who were, at one point, up by as many as 11 points on the Ottawa Senators, are on the brink of falling out of first place in the Atlantic Division for the first time all season. They are losing ground at breakneck pace, sitting but four points ahead of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff qualifier, and their confidence appears to be eroding with every step taken in the wrong direction.
“The more we talk about it, the more fragile I think we’ll be,” said Pacioretty. “At the end of the day, we’re playing hockey. We’ve played this sport all our lives, guys just have to find it. I don’t know what excuse is possible to dig up right now, guys just have to find their game.”
Ideally, they’d have had it to give Julien a night he’d want to remember forever instead of one he’d prefer to forget.
“I’m going to stay positive,” the coach said. “When I say positive, it doesn’t mean you don’t bring to the forefront what you need to do better. We have to fix what we have to fix here. In order to have an identity as a team, you have to have consistency.”
It’s a good thing Julien has all that experience to draw on. He’s got his work cut out for him to get the Canadiens back on track.