Canadiens Takeaways: Second-period malaise proves costly vs. Islanders, at heart of all one-goal losses

Adam Pelech dished out two assists including one on the game-tying goal, and Kyle Palmieri played the hero in overtime with the game-winner as the New York Islanders defeated the Montreal Canadiens 3-2.

It was a 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Islanders, a league-leading 24th by a single goal for the Montreal Canadiens, and you could really feel it coming in the second period.

No one who’s watched all 79 games the Canadiens have played this season would be surprised by that.

They were out-shot 14-5 in the middle frame Thursday. They gave up 10 high-danger shot attempts at five-on-five and recorded only one of their own, and you could’ve suggested they were lucky to only be out-scored 1-0 had they not lost the game by that slim a margin.

But they did, like they have so many times before, and it should only reinforce to them how desperately they need to adjust how they play this specific section of every game. 

How that lesson hasn’t sunk in yet is bewildering considering how often the Canadiens have experienced this malaise. It’s especially perplexing considering they’ve managed to learn so many other lessons.

Even if the Canadiens are one of the youngest teams in the league, they’ve taken considerable strides in several areas they had to take strides in. Take the penalty kill, for example. 

It came up with four stops on four Islanders power plays Thursday by exhibiting the same consistency it’s had since the start of 2024 but lacked so desperately through the first half of the season. Look at how far it’s come — up to 81.1 per cent over the last 43 games, which makes it eighth-best in the NHL since New Year’s Eve. 

The Canadiens had an early-season deficiency of starting poorly but nipped it in the bud quickly, enabling them to post a plus-2 differential in the first period to date. They have also made significant progress in finding cohesion that lacked in their system, which has enabled them to compete with some of the league’s best teams from game to game down the stretch. 

They may not have beaten them as often as they’d have liked, but they’ve built up a lot of confidence in themselves and belief in how they need to play and both those things will serve their future well.

But how many more times must the Canadiens singe themselves in the second period before learning not to play with fire?

It’s about risk management, especially on the road, where you’re not in control of the matchups. 

Once again, the Canadiens did a poor job of it on Thursday and got burned, with the sequence that led to Pierre Engvall’s goal the most glaring example of what they must avoid.

To see Nick Suzuki and Juraj Slafkovsky at the heart of it only served to magnify how badly this must get addressed. Because they are leaders expected to set the example for their teammates.

More often than not they do.  Both players have been responsible for so many good things this season—and they deserve credit for some of the only good things that happened for the Canadiens in this game (Slafkovsky screened Semyon Varlamov and Suzuki notched his team-leading 76th point on Jordan Harris’s game-opening goal)—but they have to be responsible for helping the team reach another level, too.

Granted, Slafkovsky is only 20 years old, and Suzuki is among the league’s youngest captains at 24. 

But they fill first-line roles. They are entrusted with playing top minutes against top opposition, and with that comes responsibility that goes well beyond carrying the team offensively.

Slafkovsky and Suzuki put offence ahead on the sequence in question. They had a chance to mitigate the danger of the long change in the second period by getting off the ice well before the puck transitioned back to Montreal’s end, and they got caught without the proper energy to defend the goal Engvall scored. They took an extra rush to the offensive zone instead of making the change when they could, and they ended up on the ice for 1:22 before the game was tied, and it was inexcusable. 

Linemate Cole Caufield had already taken his seat on the bench 17 seconds before the puck went in.

Perhaps he’s learned these are the types of things you can’t do if you wish to at least come out even in the middle frame.

But the rest of the Canadiens have to find solutions, as well. They have to change faster, they have to make simpler plays coming up the ice, they have to be willing to get the puck in deep and force the opposition into the type of mistakes they themselves have made far too often under pressure, and there’s no reason they can’t make these adjustments.

The Canadiens have done it in other areas, committing to righting their wrongs ahead of a season in which they hope to take a big step forward. 

There are three games left to address their pitiful performance in the second period, and it should be their main focus.

Speaking of Caufield’s maturity…

It’s been on display since the start of the season, despite his scoring not being on the level anyone—himself included—expected.

Still, the 23-year-old is a goal scorer, and seeing the puck go in off his stick in five of the last six games has unquestionably been soul-soothing for him. 

On Thursday, Caufield scored his 25th of the season ripping a shot through Varlamov to give the Canadiens a 2-1 lead. A lot of the goals he’s been scoring of late have been from in tight, showing an aspect of his play that has improved.

Earlier this week, coach Martin St. Louis expressed his content about the recent trend — and about Caufield scoring in general.

“For the player to get rewarded with his commitment to the things we’ve been talking about, to get rewarded in that part of the game, I’m really happy for him,” St. Louis said. “I think it’s great for his confidence.”

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On top of the other strides Caufield has taken, it’s essential. 

His shooting percentage over the next three games may not soar to the high level it’s been at throughout his entire life as a hockey player, but it’s crucial that it’s rising from where it’s been for most of the season. 

It should give Caufield a good feeling as he heads to the World Championship of Hockey to play for Team USA, but it should also reinforce to the player that his efforts to become far more complete didn’t come at a cost.

St. Louis has consistently said it hasn’t.

“If you look at Cole and take a 10,000-foot view of Cole’s season,” said St. Louis on Monday, “it’s been really, really good.”

From where we sit for most games—well above the ice, where the play appears to unfold much slower—it’s much easier to see what he’s talking about.

Caufield has a better sense for where to be in all situations, he’s more involved on the forecheck and the backcheck and away from the offensive zone and, lately, he’s scoring more from the areas most players need to get to in order to score with frequency.

Caufield did that in this game, scoring from 15 feet away from the goal line. 

“You can’t just go where you want to go,” said St. Louis before Tuesday’s 9-3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. “You’ve got to go where the game is asking you to go based on where your teammates are, where your opponents are…”

St. Louis has helped Caufield learn how to get there, but the player has made the investment and understood where it will take him in the future. 

That he’s done it at his age is huge.

Caufield might have been a 50-plus scorer this season had he not gone down this path. He had 46 goals over his last 83 games prior to the puck dropping in October, and he was looking like he was in the process of becoming the same player Steven Stamkos was back in 2011 rather than becoming the player Stamkos is now.

The Tampa Bay Lightning captain scored 60 goals that year, when he was 22. But it took four more years for him to round out his game and help the Lightning in many other departments, as he did in eventually helping to lead them to multiple Stanley Cup wins.

Stamkos may only have 39 goals this season, but as former teammate St. Louis said back on Apr. 4, “He’s a better player now than he was scoring 60 goals, 50 goals.”

“He’s a better passer, a better player over 200 feet, and he helps his team win more,” St. Louis added.

It was a direct response to a question about Stamkos’s offensive longevity, but it was also a thinly-veiled comment about Caufield.

The Wisconsonite has 37 assists in 79 this season (or six more than he had over his first 123 NHL games played), he’s unquestionably a better player of 200 feet, and St. Louis has wanted that to be recognized more often than it has been. 

The coach knows Caufield will need to keep improving to help his team win more, and he also knows Caufield getting back to scoring at the level he always has prior to this season should make the difference.

It could’ve waited until next season, but it’s better for Caufield and the Canadiens that it’s happening now. The good feeling of scoring coupled with the good feeling of being a more complete player should only help him take the next step.

Mike Matheson hits 60 points

He’s the first Canadiens defenceman to do it since P.K. Subban did in 2014-15, and he’s close to being on track to become the first defenceman to hit as many as 64 points since Andrei Markov did it in 2008-09.

Matheson also joined Markov on the list of Canadiens defenceman to hit 50 assists in a season, which only has four other names on it. A remarkable achievement that shouldn’t go unmentioned.

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