If you want to be half-glass full about it, after five straight losses — and eight in the last 10 games — you could say the building blocks were established in this dominant game the Montreal Canadiens played in Winnipeg on Saturday night.
But the Canadiens lost once again, this time 2-1 in overtime to the Winnipeg Jets, and there’s no telling how they’ll react come Tuesday at the Bell Centre against an Ottawa Senators team that’s beaten them in three of four games this season.
Interim head coach Dominique Ducharme said he told his players they deserved better, that he was pleased with what he saw in their implementation of the strategies he’s advanced since taking over for Claude Julien mid-week.
“It wasn’t perfect,” Ducharme said. “But when I say the game is honest and the points will come back to you, they’re going to come back this season at a point when we don’t deserve two points.”
Maybe he’s right. But who knows?
All things being equal, you’d think if the Canadiens play anywhere near as well at 5-on-5 as they did against Winnipeg — they out-shot the Jets 37-11 and out-chanced them 36-14 — a win’s in the bag come Tuesday.
But sometimes it takes more than that.
It takes a functional power play to come through in a tight game. It takes a good penalty kill. It takes players digging in and winning key faceoffs.
And this is where the Canadiens were undone against the Jets.
Nick Suzuki said after the game that it takes 60 minutes. “That’s what it’s going to take every night in the NHL.”
But the Canadiens should know by now, with this loss being the fifth one they’ve suffered in extra time this season, sometimes it takes 61 or 62, or more than 65.
This team can bank all the positive that came with its strong play at 5-on-5. It can even hope it carries forward.
But until these four trouble spots — the power play, the penalty kill, faceoffs and 3-on-3 overtime — get at least partially addressed, wins will be harder and harder to come by.
The power play entered the game as the 18th-best one in the NHL. It generated some good opportunities. That it got set up in the offensive zone and that its designed plays were almost perfectly executed, were pluses.
But on two of three shots that hit Connor Hellebuyck, Joel Armia was right there to provide a screen and he shifted out of the way and made the goalie's job easier. On the other one, Corey Perry parked himself right in front of the Jets netminder and Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s shot somehow (unfortunately) found glove.
The penalty kill found the right balance between passivity and aggression — something it had struggled immensely to do in the games leading up to this one — but a lost faceoff by Jake Evans and a curious decision by Alexander Romanov (who otherwise had an excellent game) to try to play goalie instead of taking his man screened Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen and gave Nikolaj Ehlers a goal.
Moments before that, Phillip Danault won a defensive zone draw clean and the puck went down the ice, and the Canadiens kept it out of their own end for 1:20. But the loss from Evans later was a killer for the 22nd-ranked penalty kill in the NHL.
The Canadiens came into the game with the 28th-best faceoff numbers and made them worse. That element of the game cost them both in regulation and overtime.
The Jets threw three forwards over the boards to start the extra frame, with Paul Stastny at centre and Ehlers and Kyle Connor roving. Montreal countered with Jeff Petry on defence, which makes sense considering he’s been among the three highest-scoring blue-liners in the NHL all season, and Armia was out there because Ducharme said he thought he was one of the Canadiens’ best players in the game.
Danault came on for one reason and one reason only.
“The first thing for me was that they have three forwards, we have to take possession of the puck right away,” said Ducharme. “I don’t want to say exactly what we wanted to do, but if we take possession of the puck and we keep it, I think at one point we can pick the right time with good changes to make them pay.”
It’s a logical explanation, but Danault lost the faceoff cleanly and the Canadiens didn’t touch the puck again until Allen was fishing it out of their net.
He’s been through losing spells like these. The last one he was a part of was with the St. Louis Blues, who spiralled to last in the NHL, fired head coach Mike Yeo, replaced him with Craig Berube and then went on to win the Stanley Cup.
The turnaround, Allen said Saturday, took two to three weeks.
The Canadiens don’t have that much time in this shortened season.
“We finally got all on one page,” said Allen of those 2019 Cup-winning Blues. “I think that’s the biggest thing.”
The goaltender, who made 17 saves against the Jets, saw evidence the Canadiens are almost there.
“I think we’re really gelling here to all get on one page,” said Allen. “I liked what we brought to the table yesterday and today, and obviously tomorrow’s a travel day, but we’ll get back to work Monday.”
But the Canadiens need to win Tuesday for some optimism to really take hold.