Canadiens quarter-mark report: Can offence bounce back after hot start?

Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien discusses what his team needs to do in order to secure a win against the Toronto Maple Leafs following a pair of back-to-back losses in their last two game.

MONTREAL—A quarter of the season has already elapsed.

How did it go by so fast? The months between the Stanley Cup being awarded to the Tampa Bay Lightning and the 2021 NHL campaign getting underway felt interminable, but it feels like we haven’t had a second to catch our breath since.

That’s about to change for us, and for the Montreal Canadiens with an upcoming six-day gap in the schedule.

They started off the season with their hair on fire, but they’re currently choking on the residue from the extinguisher.

Along the way, perspective has been gained.

“Obviously, you’ve seen us play really good hockey,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Friday. “I think we have the ability to be a good hockey club, and the last few games we’ve struggled, which I think a lot of teams have gone through it and the teams that haven’t are going to go through it. It’s unavoidable with this kind of schedule and what’s going on here.

"So, right now, I think what we have after 14 games and what we can show right now to our fans is that we’re a resilient group and that we’re going to bounce back. And what I would say is I think, from what I see in that dressing room, we have the ability to do that. So, I have a lot of confidence in our group.”

WHERE THE CANADIENS ARE RELATIVE TO EXPECTATION?

Fourteen games into the season, the Canadiens are exactly who we thought they were—a fast team with a physical edge, a deep and balanced team that works extremely hard and plays to its strengths, but not a perfect team.

We thought the Canadiens would be second-best to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the all-Canadian North Division, and that’s where they stand a quarter of the way through. They do, however, have a tenuous grip on that position—in the midst of a “mini-slump,” as captain Shea Weber referred to it on Friday, and with a schedule that will offer them a week’s rest while others in the division play games.

The numbers show strong tendencies at 5-on-5 and reflect the depth and balance of the roster. Only two forwards are without goals (Phillip Danault and Paul Byron) and only Victor Mete, who’s played just two games, is without a point. They also show that the power play has been moderately successful (20.8 per cent) but hasn’t quite performed with the consistency the Canadiens are hoping for.

The penalty kill has also underperformed in one respect, currently sitting at 19th in the NHL, but it has exceeded expectations in another—the Canadiens have seven shorthanded goals after not scoring more than six through 71 games a season ago.

All in all, the Canadiens are who they are: a team with four very good lines, three very good defence pairings and two very good goaltenders, but not a team that can be carried by one or two individuals. So long as they remain true to their identity, they should prove to be more like the team we saw over the first 10 games and less like the one that’s lost three of the last four.

TOP-SIX FORWARDS GRADE: B

A clear-cut No. 1 line has emerged, regardless of the four-line approach Julien has employed. Nick Suzuki (12 points), Jonathan Drouin (11 points) and Josh Anderson (11 points) have found consistency as a unit, scoring and dominating the expected goals to vault themselves into consideration for one of the most effective lines in the NHL so far.

But things haven’t gone nearly as smoothly for Montreal’s old top line—Danault (five points), Tomas Tatar (four goals, eight points) and Brendan Gallagher (five goals, seven points)—and they were broken up in the 14th game of the quarter.

BOTTOM-SIX FORWARD GRADE: B+

Tyler Toffoli scorched the Vancouver Canucks over five early season meetings, scoring eight of his nine goals on the season against them, but things could be going smoother with Jesperi Kotkaniemi (seven points) and Joel Armia/Corey Perry. Hence, Toffoli is now playing with Danault and Gallagher.

Perry was signed to be in and out, which makes sense at this stage of his career, and he’s been better than expected when he’s been in so far. And Armia has bookended an absence due to a concussion with strong play.

The fourth line, centred by Jake Evans and flanked by Byron and Artturi Lehkonen has done exactly what’s expected of it—been reliable against top players, played with speed and mostly in the offensive zone, and it has also kicked in a bit of offence. It could score more given its potential, but it’s performing well.

DEFENCE GRADE: B

Jeff Petry has been exceptional, Weber and Ben Chiarot started off very well but tapered off a bit over the last three games, Joel Edmundson has been more steady than unsteady but is still somewhat inconsistent, and Alexander Romanov and Brett Kulak—with a little help from Mete—have made for a mostly reliable duo.

The group can move the puck better, but it has also produced 34 points, 14 of which belong to Petry.

As for being hard to play against, they’re passing with flying colours having given up the least amount of 5-on-5 goals from the high-danger zone in the NHL (6) according to naturalstattrick.com—plus they’ve thrown 132 hits and combined for 116 blocked shots.

GOALTENDING GRADE: B-

Carey Price hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t been good enough. And considering he’s started eight of 14 games and is sporting an unflattering .896 save percentage, the grade is being dragged down.

If it’s as good as B-, it’s because Jake Allen has been brilliant, with four wins and a .933 save percentage in his six starts.

Still, this doesn’t have to be an A for the Canadiens to be successful this season. But with more than $14 million being spent at the position, it should be.

A BIG QUESTION FOR THE SECOND QUARTER

Kind of a double whammy here, but we need to know if Price can immediately get to the level that’s expected of him and if the offence can not necessarily regain its early season form, but graduate from its current inefficient state.

Those things happening simultaneously would set the Canadiens up for a great second half of the season. If neither of those things happen, it could prove disastrous.

Price can do a lot for the confidence of the team when he’s playing like we know he can. The team has all the components to score more—even if four to five goals a game, like they were popping through the first 10, was unsustainable.

It doesn’t all have to come together at once, but the pressure will mount considerably if the Canadiens don’t stabilize quickly at both ends of the ice.

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