Canadiens open critical series vs. Flames with discombobulated performance

Sean Monahan had a goal and two assists to give the Calgary Flames the edge over the Montreal Canadiens 4-2.

It was an accurate statement, but not a predictive one.

When Dominique Ducharme said on Friday morning that the Calgary Flames had yet to meet the best version of his Montreal Canadiens, he was absolutely correct. When he added they’d get acquainted on Friday night, he couldn’t have possibly known how wrong he’d be.

“I was certainly expecting more energy,” Ducharme said after the Canadiens lost 4-2 at the Saddledome.

The Flames sapped it right out of the Canadiens and, considering how they did it, we’re not sure things will turn out all that differently over the final two meetings these teams will have against each other between now and Tuesday. Because this game, like four of the six between these teams before it, was played entirely on Calgary’s terms — in the corners and along the boards, with the snowbanks piling high in those areas of the ice, if that’s what you want to call it.

It was more like slush in this game. At least it seemed that way.

“Perception is reality,” said Flames coach Darryl Sutter, “so if it was soft, it was soft.”

The ice was pillow-soft, playing very much into the hands of the Flames, who employ a direct style that makes life impossible on teams that overcomplicate things.

And boy, did the Canadiens ever do that in this game.

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It didn’t help that Jonathan Drouin came down with a sudden but non-COVID-19-related illness in warmup, forcing Ducharme to dress Erik Gustafsson as a seventh defenceman and only 11 forwards. The Canadiens couldn’t find rhythm at either end of the ice, with lines and pairings shuffled throughout, and it was reflected in their inability to produce any quality chances — aside from two opportunistic goals scored by Tyler Toffoli and Joel Armia — through the first 55 minutes.

But they were also a comedy act in their own end.

When Joel Edmundson said, “We weren’t connected in the d-zone for the most part,” that was about as mildly as he could’ve put it. The Canadiens were a disaster there, giving away six pucks and having another 11 taken off their sticks.

Flames goals for Dillon Dube, Andrew Mangiapane and Sean Monahan came easy, with all three players unmarked in the slot after the Canadiens mismanaged the puck.

“We have the puck on our stick and we lose it or we give it away,” said Ducharme. “Or we throw it behind the option or in the skates so it slows down our game.”

It’s what the Canadiens have been doing in most of their losses this season, but certainly in the ones to the Flames.

They are the antithesis to the Canadiens — and to exciting hockey.

The only consolation to having watched every second of this game was knowing there’s a maximum of eight periods still to be played between both teams this season. Any more would be unbearable.

Ducharme should be the happiest person only one of the Canadiens or Flames will make the post-season because it’s his team likely to be there. They hold a six-point advantage in the standings, a stranglehold on the last playoff spot in the North Division and a game in hand on the Flames.

The coach should be elated his team only needs to collect a point or two out of four on the table Saturday and Monday to make the math even more daunting for the Flames.

It won’t be easy, though.

Even if Ducharme says it just boils down to his team executing what it wants to do better, we’re not certain his close-support system matches up well to the chip-and-chase, muck-and-grind style Sutter’s team runs with. The Flames consistently push the puck below the goal line and jam up the walls with their defencemen pinching in, and the only way to beat that is to back them off. And backing them off requires exercising more options than Ducharme appears to want to go with.

The Canadiens could do it his way, too, but that requires better communication and using the middle of the ice more than the boards. And if they want to stretch the ice out a bit more, which would be effective, it would mean going further away from their system.

But we digress.

This game — and the ones before it against Calgary — wasn’t solely lost in failing to exit the zone. The Canadiens could’ve done more to not let the puck get into their end to begin with. Winning more than 39 per cent of the faceoffs would’ve helped, but doing a better job of standing up at their own blue line and slowing down the Flames forecheck could’ve mitigated that issue as well.

The Canadiens weren’t able to do that, though.

“I think tonight we just weren’t closing quick enough,” said Edmundson, “and we started running around the d-zone, and they just kept coming at us.”

That’s what the Flames do.

It turns an entertaining game into something unsavoury. And for as tough as that is to watch, we’re sure it’s even tougher to play against.

But the Canadiens have no choice over the next 72 hours, so they’ll have to roll up their sleeves and serve up something better than they did on Friday.

Because they weren’t the team Ducharme expected to see. Not even close.


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