Canadiens’ players, coaches equally responsible for power-play struggles

Jake Walman played the hero in overtime as part of his two-point night to give the Detroit Red Wings a 5-4 win after the Montreal Canadiens scored twice in the third period to force the extra frame.

MONTREAL — It was the most pivotal part of this game, and the Montreal Canadiens mishandled it and ended up losing 5-4 in overtime to the Detroit Red Wings.

With just under 25 minutes to play in regulation, the Canadiens got a five-on-three advantage. They were staring at the best opportunity they were likely to get to overcome a terrible start, they were trailing by two goals and absolutely needed to score one, and they didn’t even get a shot on net. 

Captain Nick Suzuki later said they got the look they were angling for, but coach Martin St. Louis said it was the look the Red Wings were covering.

And then the coach made a point that should at least partially reframe the debate over why a power play fails — and fails as royally as the Canadiens’ one has since Nov. 12.

“At that time (when the play you’re looking for is covered), you have to ad-lib a little bit and go with your instinct,” St. Louis said, “and I thought we could’ve done a better job of that.”

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On this one — and on the 26 goal-less power plays that preceded it — that’s an undeniable truth, though the finger rarely gets pointed at anyone other than those setting the strategy.

St. Louis and assistant coach Alexandre Burrows certainly aren’t blameless for a stretch as certifiably cold as this one. They’ve made some adjustments — both to personnel and strategy over the last three weeks — but not enough of them to help the Canadiens break through, and they know it.

“Me and Alex run the power play,” St. Louis told us during this pre-season interview, “and I’m as much to blame when it doesn’t go well.”

It hasn’t for some time, but its slide also coincided with the five-on-five game slipping — a facet of play that needed immediate correcting and understandably took priority at practice during the team’s most recent 3-1 road trip through California and Columbus.

The work on the power play in the video room over that time obviously wasn’t as effective, which made St. Louis’ decision to not take his timeout when the Canadiens got their five-on-three versus the Wings that much more curious.

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From 200 feet above the ice, in the moment, it felt like the optimal time for St. Louis to give his charges a rest and go over the strategy, to perhaps even craft Plan B and C for them should Plan A go awry. His top unit, comprised of Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Brendan Gallagher, Sean Monahan and Mike Matheson, had already been on the ice for 59 seconds, and they were about to get back out there for what St. Louis said afterwards is a rare opportunity in this league.

But the coach did justify his decision in saying, “I felt like if we scored one there, I might need my timeout later,” and he added that he had asked his players if they needed a rest and was satisfied with their response that they didn’t.

“If they told me they weren’t (okay), I was going to call it,” St. Louis said, and that made sense.

He also wasn’t wrong about suggesting the players on the ice should’ve been able to “ad-lib and play a little bit.”

They got Caufield the puck in a scoring position, but, as Matheson said, the Red Wings had seen that look in a Nov. 9 loss to the Canadiens that Caufield had delivered on a four-on-three power play and adjusted to it.

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Moritz Seider blocked Caufield’s lone attempt, and he and the other Wings on the ice covered him off as the Canadiens continued to try to feed him other chances.

“Obviously, when you don’t score on a five-on-three, it’s tough,” Matheson said. “We’ve got to execute there.”

The Canadiens had to at least adjust, just as they do under regular circumstances with the man-advantage, which finally came through in the third period of this game after extending its deep freeze to 27 failed attempts.

“It’s not as if that goal was a Picasso,” St. Louis said. “We got a gift that the puck ended up on our star player’s stick, and we were able to keep the puck and Suzuki made a good individual play with a screen in front. It was a really good shot, and surely it does some good for our power play, but we have a lot of work to do on it.”

That work will have to happen on the ice, now, with trust that the five-on-five game will look more like it did in the third period against the Wings than it did over the first two. St. Louis and Burrows will have to craft better plans, and some contingencies.

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The coaching staff will also have to address the penalty kill, which gave up a goal against Detroit and sunk to 27th in the league. It requires major reconstruction.

But the players have to be as much — if not more — a part of the solutions on both special teams. They are the ones in control of all of it in the end, and they have creative license to adjust on the fly.

Had they done that on the five-on-three in this game, goals in the third period might have counted as the tying and winning ones.

The Canadiens still earned a point, but they were left frustrated by the way they played through the first half of the game and the golden opportunity they let slip away late in the second period.

“I’d say we lost a point,” said Matheson. “I don’t think we’re in the business of being happy with that.”

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