There are moments in the playoffs when a coach has to coach, and moments when he has to psychoanalyze. Times when your players aren’t in the right places, which you can fix, and times when they’re positioned perfectly but not making the plays they are accustomed to making.
Their power play — dead last in the NHL and goalless in this series — looks like five guys who just met at the 10 a.m. 40-and-over pickup game down at the community centre. And their execution — simple passes and plays they’ve made routinely until now — is as bad as the ice on which they skated Tuesday night in Vegas.
After being routed 4-1 in Game 5 in their own building by the Habs, we wondered if head coach Peter DeBoer will be using a whiteboard at Wednesday’s practice? Or a couch and a notepad?
Do his players need fresh strategy? Or do they need Bob Newhart?
“We’re searching for those answers. That’s our job here: to turn over every stone,” DeBoer said. “Is there some X-and-O answers? The moments in this series where we’ve had success, we’re doing certain things. But we’re not doing them for long enough stretches, and with enough participants.
“I don’t have a clear answer for you,” he decided, sort of. “We’ve been in this spot before, we’ve had adversity and responded the right way every time with this group. I’m confident we’ll be ready to go in Game 6.”
Let us begin by crediting the Canadiens, who walked right into one of the most imposing environments in today’s National Hockey League and won virtually 55 of the 60 minutes of Game 5 hockey. They scored first, scored last and in between built a 3-0 lead that looked as impenetrable as the four-by-six sheet of plywood that is Carey Price.
Meanwhile, inside the heads of the Golden Knights we found equal parts confusion and obstinance.
“Sometimes things don’t go the way you plan, but you play seven games for a reason,” said captain Alex Pietrangelo. “You (media) guys can sit there and pick apart all you want, but we’re going to go to Montreal and we have a job to do. Refocus tomorrow, get on the plane and get the job done in a couple of days.”
Pietrangelo admitted, however, that a poorly executing team playing on awful desert ice in June can be a bad combination.
“It’s mostly execution,” he said of his team’s issues. “There are plays there we have to make. This time of year … with the way the temperatures are, it’s not easy to play.
“You have to understand when there’s a chance to make a clean play, and when there isn’t.”
Clean play? For Montreal this was a clean kill, an eerie sign of a team that has its opponent figured out five games into this series.
“It’s hard to explain,” said DeBoer. “We didn’t have great legs, didn’t have great execution. Give them credit — they played a real good road game. And falling behind that team, it’s not a formula for success.”
Montreal appears to be that team, and Vegas looks very much like a victim of a Cinderella run that is now one game away from placing a Canadian club in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games back in 2011.
Price has been resurrected and is absolutely infallible in the Canadiens' net, while the kid Vegas traded away for Max Pacioretty — Nick Suzuki — had a three-point night and has five points in Games 3, 4, and 5 of this series.
It got so bad Tuesday that the much-ballyhooed Vegas fans booed their team off the ice, trailing 3-0 after 40 minutes. That is a prediction that nobody in their right mind would have made 10 days ago.
“We weren’t playing very well, maybe we deserved it,” said defenceman Brayden McNabb. “We got outworked from puck drop. We love our fans. I’m sure they were frustrated, as were we.”
Frustrated? Playing Montreal has become the quickest route to premature baldness, so frustrating (and successful) is the Habs’ game plan.
“They clogged up the middle, they clogged the neutral zone,” lamented McNabb. “Our forecheck is one of the best in the league and when we’re going we’re very good at it. We’ve got to do more of that.”
Did you hear that?
We’re heading to Montreal for Game 6 of this series Thursday, and the Golden Knights are still wondering how to get a forecheck going. How to run a power play. How to get through the neutral zone, and then to net front through Montreal’s towering, physical blue line.
Meanwhile, the Canadiens are confident, in sync and rolling right along. They’ve got all the answers.
“We’ve got to find some answers,” countered DeBoer.