MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens had four goals and 48 shots on net and lost their sixth consecutive game—this one by a score of 6-4 to the 29th-ranked offensive team in the National Hockey League, the New Jersey Devils.
And yes, you might consider this an exaggeration, but they got what they deserved after making roughly 48 mistakes in the game.
Three goals against on Thursday were scored on odd-man rushes. They were goals generated by the Devils because the Canadiens got caught with three forwards deep in the offensive zone and defencemen pinching in and trying to hold the blue line without any back up. They were goals borne of bad line changes and bad decision-making. You know, the same type of goals they’ve given up for much of their 25 games.
But the mistakes have been colossal over Montreal’s last three games, and they’ve been magnified because they were made after three consecutive losses.
The numbers bear that out.
I’m not sure what’s more shocking: That the Canadiens have done something they’ve never managed before in their 110-year history by giving up 20 goals over three consecutive home games, or that it’s happened under Claude Julien’s watch.
He’s reputed as a defensive maven. His entire system is predicated on owning the neutral zone on both sides of the puck, and on keeping the traffic to the outside in the defensive zone.
The Canadiens are doing none of that right now.
“I’m frustrated as hell right now, and I’m tired of losing,” Julien said after the game.
And these most recent results—and the identical fashion in which they’ve been achieved—will inspire a lot of talk around town about removing him as coach.
Acting on that idea would be a completely misguided measure. Because the players we’ve canvassed over the last number of days haven’t even come close to expressing frustration with what they’re being told to do.
They just aren’t doing it.
As Julien mentioned after Thursday’s game, the Canadiens aren’t playing this badly by design.
Canadiens assistant captain Brendan Gallagher, who scored a goal, had seven shots and 11 attempts and finished minus-2 against the Devils, tried to explain why they’ve strayed from the path they know will generate successful results.
“When things are going wrong, everyone wants to win so bad and at times you try to do a little bit too much,” he said. “When we’re going good we kind of just trust each other do our job and trust your teammates are going to do theirs.”
But a crisis of confidence is hard to snap out of, and frustration is an impediment to rediscovering that trust.
You have to ask yourself why a team that has had so little issue scoring goals this season, a team that’s very confident in that aspect of its game—the Canadiens have the most goals at 5-on-5 in the NHL—would force things so much on offence that it’s sacrificing defence to the extent that it is.
It really boils down to commitment. It boils down to doing what’s harder to do—buckling down and focusing on defence rather than taking the easy route and trying to out-score their problems.
Julien and his associates know it.
“At one point we have to take matters in hand here as a group and we’ve got to fix those things,” he said. “And as long as we don’t play better defensively, things aren’t going to get fixed. So we’ve got to make sure we think about keeping the puck out of our net. Before we think about scoring four or five goals a game, we need to fix that first.”
When the Canadiens arrive at their south shore practice facility on Friday, when they pour over the tape from Thursday’s game against New Jersey, it’s all going to be reinforced.
It might even sink in this time around because they’ll be able to say they worked hard but unable to say they worked smart.
“Each loss you have to take what it is and learn from it,” said Gallagher. “I’ve always been a believer you learn more from a loss than you do from a win. If we’re not learning from this, we’re not going to be getting better. That’s really all you can do.”
Doing anything else will only produce more losses, and there isn’t a person in the organization who wants that.
You can point at individuals and say they need to be better. There’s nothing wrong with that. It starts with the guys who are supposed to be Montreal’s best.
Carey Price saved a couple of sure goals on Thursday, and he was beat for a couple he had no chance on, but he wasn’t good enough in the game and hasn’t been good enough throughout November. Jeff Petry, who’s been Montreal’s most reliable defenceman since the start of the 2017-18 season, is coming off two of his worst performances since he first donned a Canadiens uniform in 2015. Shea Weber, typically a defensive stalwart, rarely ends up in no man’s land defending a 2-on-1 like he did on New Jersey’s first goal of the game.
Victor Mete wasn’t much better against New Jersey. Neither were any of Ben Chiarot, Mike Reilly or Brett Kulak.
But none of those defencemen can be at their best if the forwards aren’t doing what they need to do to keep the opposition from burning up the neutral zone and rocking everyone back on their heels.
Right now the Canadiens all share in the pain.
“It sucks,” said Gallagher. “I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a terrible feeling. But nobody is going to feel sorry for you.”
Especially not the Philadelphia Flyers, who visit Montreal to play the Canadiens on Saturday. The Boston Bruins, who beat them 8-1 on Tuesday and will be waiting for them on Sunday, are probably licking their chops.
“We need to find solutions and players need to trust that those solutions are the ones that we need,” said Julien.
There’s no other way to go from here.