Beatdown in Buffalo, slow start to season leaves Canadiens concerned

The Buffalo Sabres had five different scorers, including Kyle Okposo who had a goal and an assist to lift the Sabres to a 5-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens in their season opener. Montreal have now lost back-to-back games to start the season.

The Montreal Canadiens are coming home with zero points in the bank through their first two games of the season—a dreaded result for a team that needed to get off on the right foot to quell the many doubts spurred by tremendous turnover of the roster over the last few months and some unexpected drama to cap the off-season.

It was anticipated life would be tough for this team with Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi gone to different markets, with Shea Weber too injured to continue his career, with Carey Price checking into the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program just days out from the puck dropping in Toronto, and with Joel Edmundson, Paul Byron, Mike Hoffman and Sami Niku sidelined to start the season.

But it wasn’t supposed to be as hard as it appeared in back-to-back losses to the Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.

It’s early, and it’s typically wise not to overreact to what you see in the first 10 games of an 82-game season, let alone what you see in the first two. Case in point: while the Canadiens were getting pumped 5-1 to the draft lottery favourites in Buffalo, the Leafs were getting blanked 3-0 in a game they inevitably lost 3-2 to an inferior Ottawa team and the reigning, two-time Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, who got stomped 6-2 by the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin-less Pittsburgh Penguins on opening night, gave up six in a game they barely managed to pull out over a Detroit Red Wings team that won just 19 of 56 games last season.

But even if there’s no cause for panic in Montreal, Canadiens fans have reason to be concerned. If coach Dominique Ducharme abandoning his line combinations after the fourth period of the season didn’t make that clear, well…

When asked after the loss what he was most troubled by, Ducharme responded, “The whole thing.”

Watching the Canadiens flatline to start Thursday’s game after losing 2-1 in Toronto 24 hours earlier probably didn’t sit too well with him.

They gave up the first seven shots of the game, several odd-man rushes, and a couple uncontested shots that led to goals for Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons before 18 minutes had been played.

We don’t know what was said in the dressing room at intermission, but the message was pretty clear on the ice thereafter. Artturi Lehkonen moved up from the fourth line to bump Cole Caufield out of his spot next to Nick Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli on the first, and Caufield lined up next to Jake Evans and Brendan Gallagher and pushed Joel Armia into Lehkonen’s original spot.

“We were better at the beginning of the second,” said Ducharme, “but then the penalties cost us.”

After taking two in the first period and allowing Girgensons to capitalize on one of them, the Canadiens took three minors in the second and allowed yet another power play goal.

They finished the night having allowed three of them on six opportunities, and their own work with the man-advantage was hardly better than it was a night prior, when they went 0-for-4 and frankly embarrassed themselves on an extended five-on-three.

Samuel Montembeault, the newly acquired backup goaltender to backup-turned-starter Jake Allen, could’ve been the silver lining in this game—a parachute for a Canadiens team in freefall—but he wasn’t. The first goal the 24-year-old allowed was a wrist shot from 45 feet out, and there were a couple of more he’d have probably liked to have had back.

Not that this result was on Montembeault, who was playing his first NHL game since before the pandemic shut down the 2020 season.

“We didn’t help him much—especially with the amount of penalties,” said Ducharme.

In fairness, the Canadiens didn’t help Montembeault at all.

“We didn’t put in the work to be the team celebrating right now,” said Gallagher.

The Canadiens’ alternate captain summed up what should be taken away from the loss to the Sabres and this perilous start to the season quite well, saying, “These points at the beginning of the year are critical, you don’t want to put yourself in a hole. So obviously, to start 0-and-2, there’s a lot of urgency in the next one.”

You expect to see it from him, from Toffoli, Suzuki and Caufield (who are supposed to deliver top-end offence but have combined for zero points so far) and from an entire defence corps that appears discombobulated.

Ducharme made some changes there, too, against the Sabres, with Alex Romanov taking Brett Kulak’s place next to Jeff Petry and Chris Wideman taking shifts with Ben Chiarot as the night wore on.

Not that it helped.

“We were bad in every way, including the way we competed,” said Ducharme. “We didn’t play to our team identity.”

You know, the one that carried the Canadiens to within three wins of the Cup last July.

Gallagher offered the remedy.

“For us to have success, we’re good when we’re mentally sharp and the other team has no time and space and we’re harder to play against,” he said. “We’ve got to up our physicality and be a tougher team to play against. We need to get rid of those opportunities we’re giving up. There’s way too many odd-man rushes and we’re putting guys in tough situations. We’ve got to be smarter, we’ve got to be mentally sharper, and we’ve got to play a tighter game.”

Perhaps the Canadiens can do that on Saturday, when they open the Bell Centre to the New York Rangers. Best to avoid turning a dreaded start into a disastrous one.

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