MONTREAL — Despite Aaron Dell’s proclamation that his San Jose Sharks played the best game of their season at the Bell Centre on Thursday, the 4-2 score in their favour had more to do with the Montreal Canadiens than it did with his team.
Not that we’re disputing the backup goaltender’s comment, because, frankly, the Sharks came to Montreal with a 3-5-1 record on the heels of another bad loss and in possession of some of the NHL’s worst numbers in all but one category — their penalty kill, which ranked second among 31 teams after successfully killing off 90.6 per cent of the team’s penalties. It’s just that they were dominated by Montreal in nearly every facet of the game, outshot 37-23 and out-chanced by an even wider margin, and they really weren’t all that good.
But Dell was phenomenal, and that San Jose penalty kill did its thing on Montreal’s three power-play opportunities.
As for the Canadiens, who had been excellent at 5-on-5 and surprisingly successful on the power play through their first nine games, they came into this one with an abysmal penalty kill and came out of it with an even worse one. And their coach made an assessment afterward that absolutely no one watching could take issue with.
“Our penalty kill was not good enough,” Claude Julien said.
“It didn’t take them long to score. Guys are missing assignments, or we’re not clearing pucks, or we’re too busy crosschecking guys in front of the net instead of looking for the puck. There’s a lot of things that will be addressed (Friday). It’s time that there’s certain things here that have to be clearly defined and I’ll make sure that happens.”
It’s fair to say we’re well past it being time for that. The issues have been the same since the season started on Oct. 3, but if there’s an urgency to “clearly define” things, it’s because trust between the players comprising each penalty-killing unit appears to have eroded.
That was abundantly clear on the first of two goals the Canadiens allowed on their first two penalty-killing opportunities against the Sharks. It was a full-blown fire drill in front of goaltender Carey Price with Evander Kane being the eventual beneficiary of a Logan Couture shot that deflected off of him and into the net.
The play started with Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry swinging well outside his designated area to make an aggressive stab at a puck Sharks forward Tomas Hertl was in full control of by the sideboards. From there, Hertl shoveled it down low to Kevin Labanc, who had an open lane to drive the net because Petry was out of position.
As Petry was jetting back to cover off Labanc’s net drive, Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot realized that his partner wasn’t going to recover on time. So Chiarot slid in front of Labanc to block the shot and the passing lane. The problem was that both Petry and Chiarot were on Labanc and it was compounded by the fact that Price didn’t believe either one of them was going to stop him.
The goaltender shuffled over and ended up with three players encroaching on him while the puck squirted past his glove and over to Couture, who was wide open.
The Sharks captain set up Erik Karlsson with a clean one-timer from the point that Price turned aside, but then the rebound was easily collected by Hertl and passed over to Couture for the shot that banked off Kane.
No one on Montreal’s side took a man on the play. They all just watched as the puck trickled into the net.
A picture worth 1000 words… pic.twitter.com/pj8dNHHjsf
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) October 25, 2019
Kane’s second goal, scored 34 seconds after Petry was sent to the box for a phantom trip, was the product of the Canadiens freezing because they were so focused on not running out of position.
“It’s a balance of sometimes you feel like you’re too aggressive and you need to box it up a bit more, and then when you’re doing that it feels like you just get peppered with shots and you need to be more aggressive,” said Chiarot, whose first response to being asked about the struggling penalty kill was, “Oh, f—.”
If the 28-year-old wasn’t too excited to talk about it, it’s at least in part because he’s been on the ice for five of the 11 goals the Canadiens have allowed on the penalty kill — including both of the ones San Jose scored. And it can’t feel good for him to know that he’s the only new player on a penalty kill that finished 13th in the league and operated at 80.9 per cent last season.
Right now, the Canadiens rank 30th in the category. They’ve killed off just 67.6 per cent of their penalties. And Big Ben is hardly the only reason that’s the case, just as last year’s success can’t solely be credited to Jordie Benn, who left for Vancouver as an unrestricted free agent in July.
“We’re capable of doing better,” said Julien.
The Canadiens can’t be much worse in this aspect of the game. It’s the main reason they lost to the Sharks on Thursday, and it’s one of the only reasons they don’t have more four wins through their first 10 games.
If they don’t fix this quick, it’s going to cost them dearly.