MONTREAL—Jesperi Kotkaniemi sat in the middle of the Montreal Canadiens’ bench, watching his teammates try—and fail—to beat Corey Crawford on the 18 shots they notched in the third period of Saturday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The 18-year-old Finn, who has 11 goals and 21 assists this season, played two shifts in the frame while his team trailed by two goals.
Fourth line centre Nate Thompson, who has 10 goals in his last six seasons combined, jumped on the ice for five. One of them came with less than four minutes to go. And Artturi Lehkonen—he of one goal in his last 34 games—continued to hop over the boards next to the team’s best playmaker, Max Domi.
With the Canadiens’ net empty, with just under three minutes to play, it wasn’t 17-goal scorer Andrew Shaw anchoring the team’s 6-on-5 unit. It wasn’t Paul Byron, who has 13 goals in 49 games but has scored at least 20 in each of the two seasons prior to this one. No, they were sitting next to Kotkaniemi, watching five-goal man Jordan Weal complete the last of his shifts as Montreal’s second-most used forward in the game.
Domi, who leads the Canadiens with 24 goals and 62 points, and Tomas Tatar (22 goals, 50 points) also watched from the bench as Weal played 3:48 on the first wave of the power play.
Perplexing? Completely. And Canadiens coach Claude Julien stood at the podium of the team’s press room afterwards wondering aloud about whether or not the pressure of the playoff race had disabled his group from turning any one of their 48 shots on net into goals in the 2-0 loss.
“It’s certain the goaltender on the other end deserves a lot of credit,” said Julien. “Crawford played a heck of a game. But, at the same time, our execution for the majority of the game wasn’t on point. We were sloppy at times, and if it’s related to the pressure it’s definitely not good timing to be having difficulty.”
Conceded on that point. The Canadiens fell to three points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the final playoff spot available in the Eastern Conference. They’re now four points behind the Carolina Hurricanes and six behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, and they’ve got 10 games left in the season to make up ground.
Are they tight? You bet. But Julien could’ve loosened the Canadiens up by relying on the players who put them in the race in the first place. He’s done an exceptional job to this point of the season, but he managed Saturday’s game in such a fashion that would only incite one to wonder whether or not the pressure of the situation is getting to him.
Julien spoke earlier in the week about needing Jonathan Drouin to snap out of a funk that saw him go without a point in 13 of 14 games. Then he put Drouin on a line with Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia; a line that produced nothing in a 2-1 loss to the New York Islanders on Thursday but one that was reassembled for Saturday’s game.
The result? They didn’t generate a single scoring chance. Nada. Zilch.
Drouin has produced 50 points in 71 games this season, and 32 of them have come at 5-on-5. Of those 32, he’s scored 23 next to Domi. It’s no big leap to suggest reuniting the two made sense prior to the loss to Chicago. No big leap to suggest it should have been done after the Canadiens registered 30 mostly perimeter shots through two periods without scoring a goal.
“He hit the post tonight, right? And he had another great scoring chance where Crawford made an unbelievable glove save,” said Julien. “So, just because he hasn’t scored, I don’t know why we should question whether he should be there…”
He’s not there to almost score, is he?
Meanwhile, Julien said Byron was moved to the fourth line because he “had some issues” over the last couple of games. The coach’s reasoning for putting Weal out for a team-leading 10 shifts in the third period was because he had a strong showing in the faceoff circle. He explained that Kotkaniemi had lost defensive coverage on a couple of occasions before being parked.
None of it really jived.
In reality, Weal had won four faceoffs and lost four through two periods, and he didn’t fare any better on the six he took in the final frame. He also turned the puck over to Slater Koekkoek on the goal Brendan Perlini scored to make it 2-0 Chicago with 15:11 to go.
Byron, who was flying in the game, unquestionably could’ve helped alongside better players. And Kotkaniemi would have been a good option for the power play, which sunk to 11.9 per cent on the year and now rests as the 14th worst one in league history since the NHL began publishing power play statistics in 1977-78.
“The only thing missing right now is our game to be at its best,” said Julien. “It’s just not there.”
He—and they—had better find it in a hurry.