MONTREAL — It took a game like this one to confirm one of the biggest issues the Montreal Canadiens have had for the better part of this season. A game that saw the Calgary Flames, playing the second half of a back-to-back that involved travel, come to the Bell Centre and beat the rested Canadiens to nearly every loose puck.
They beat them in the corners, they beat them in front of both nets and beat them 4-1 on the scoreboard to reduce Montreal’s lead on that fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division to just four points.
Granted, the Canadiens have three games in hand and four more games to play against the Flames, and just one or two wins would all but nullify any hope Calgary gained with this resounding win.
But we digress.
Prior to the game, we asked Flames coach Darryl Sutter what challenge the Canadiens posed to his group, and his answer was extremely revealing in what he did and didn’t say.
“They’re a real veteran team,” Sutter started. “A lot of savvy and experience, and that in itself is a challenge for us. So that’s what we’ll try and handle tonight.”
But not Montreal’s speed, which used to be at the heart of this team’s system but was so obviously lacking in this loss to a Flames team that’s done anything but burn up the North this season. A Flames team skating on tired legs, no less.
Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme was absolutely right in his recognition that the DNA has been altered — with the addition of slower players like Joel Edmundson, Corey Perry and Eric Staal among others — and doubly so when he said the team is still faster than it showed in this game.
But it’s impossible to miss the connection between the general inconsistency of the Canadiens throughout this entire season and this change at the heart of their identity. Because opposing coaches used to talk about the team the way Brett Kulak did following this loss, and no one is saying this now.
“We’re a fast team,” said Kulak. “We’re in your face, we don’t give you any time and space and we’re not a fun team to play against. We don’t let you make plays, we make it a hard night on you and we pretty much skate you up and down the rink and we capitalize on our chances when other teams turn the puck over because we’re good positionally, we have good sticks and we have guys who can put the puck in the net.”
Sutter hit it on the head with his pre-game comments. The Canadiens are a veteran group, filled with Stanley Cup winners and key players over the age of 33, and that is a blessing in many ways but also a curse in one specific way.
They haven’t handled the compacted schedule particularly well, even if it would present a challenge to a younger, faster team. And their ability to consistently execute Ducharme’s system, which demands five guys playing in close support in all three zones — and Claude Julien’s system before it, which largely depended on a lot of the same things — has certainly been hampered by their affected energy level.
But it’s also unquestionably been hindered by the Canadiens’ lack of speed.
It’s not the main feature of leading goal scorer Tyler Toffoli’s game.
Ditto for Nick Suzuki, who finished minus-3 against the Flames and said that even though he likes his game better now than he did over a recent rough patch, it’s “not at where I think it should be.”
Jesperi Kotkaniemi has been flying. Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault, too. But it takes more than that, and as Ducharme said, the Canadiens don’t have enough players “playing their way and to their potential,” including some of the faster ones.
“We have to dictate the pace,” said Jeff Petry, who has been great for most the season but currently qualifies as one of those players. “They’re a team that wants to get in and cycle the forecheck. We need to do a better job at getting picks, holding guys up and outnumbering them down low. I think tonight we were slow to support and slow to be the second guy in, and they had numbers and they sustained pressure on the forecheck. It’s all over the ice — we need to work better as a group of five.”
And Ducharme needs to help the Canadiens do that, and not just by drawing things up on the white board.
He has some hard choices to make. Choices that are particularly challenging for an interim rookie head coach who’s in charge of a veteran group.
But Ducharme’s future with the Canadiens will depend on his ability to assert his authority to help mitigate the issue at hand. Because even if the Canadiens didn’t compete well against Calgary, even if they didn’t execute well, there were personnel decisions that exacerbated why it looked like such a mismatch.
Ducharme needs to be able to see the Canadiens aren’t faster with Shea Weber playing a team-high 26 shifts.
We know the captain shows up to play every night, that he puts in the work on every single shift and that he said the other day, when he was asked about load management, that he’d play double the amount if they let him. But we also know he’ll need to be leaned on when the chips are down and the whistles are put away, when his skill set will shine through most, and there are 16 games to go before we get there.
Weber has struggled for much of this season while averaging only two seconds less per game than team leader Petry. He’s an old 35 considering what he’s put his body through over the years and the injuries he’s dealt with since he joined the Canadiens in 2016, and being overtaxed in this condensed schedule is not bringing out the best in him.
That much has been clear since February, and it was strikingly clear in the third period of this game, when Weber first tried to clear the zone with a cross-ice pass to no one and then planted one right on Josh Leivo’s stick for the 3-1 goal that broke his team’s back with just over seven minutes to play.
Meanwhile, Weber’s not the only veteran contributing to the speed deficit.
Staal was acquired to bring some much-needed experience to the young centre line of the Canadiens, but this team doesn’t become faster playing him for a full minute more than speedster Paul Byron and four minutes more than Artturi Lehkonen, as was the case against the Flames. The Canadiens don’t become faster with Joel Armia subbing in for Jake Evans. And they’re most certainly not a faster team when a bullet like Kulak is playing just eight seconds more than Xavier Ouellet, who was so clearly behind the pace of play against Calgary.
These are things within Ducharme’s control. He’ll have to decide where to place Armia and whether or not Staal should be dressing instead of Evans. He’ll have an equally tough choice to make on Kulak when Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson — depth defencemen acquired at the trade deadline who are both slower than Kulak — emerge from their mandatory quarantines next week.
The other stuff will sort itself out with some key players coming back from injury both soon and down the line, and perhaps also with another one coming up from the Laval Rocket.
Ben Chiarot may be known for his brute strength and physicality, but he’s an excellent skater who will make the Canadiens faster when he returns from a fractured hand and replaces Ouellet (perhaps as early as Friday). Brendan Gallagher, who’s nursing a broken thumb, will hopefully be well enough to help the team’s speed significantly once the playoffs roll around. And 20-year-old Cole Caufield is just waiting for an opportunity to provide a spark this team desperately needs.
The rest boils down to effort and execution.
“We’re good when we’re fast, when we move our feet, when we’re quickly on the puck, when we kill plays quickly and win our battles,” said Ducharme.
The Canadiens weren’t doing any of that in this game and they got what they deserved, as Ducharme also noted.
He can’t change the composition of the roster, but he’s going to have to do more to get what he wants out of it.