The Montréal Canadiens started the season as one of the North Division’s best teams, storming out of the gate with a 6-1-1 record, and recording a series of dominating performances against the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks. The games against the Canucks were particularly impressive, outscoring them 29-15, including a 7-3 drubbing on Jan. 21. Over the last few games, it looks like the tide has begun to turn. The Canadiens have only one win in their last four games, and their performance resulted in the dismissal of head coach Claude Julien and assistant coach Kirk Muller. The last four games can be seen as a miniature version of their overall season so far.
A Budding Success
The Canadiens’ game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 12 showed that they were capable of going toe-to-toe with the league’s best. The Habs outshot the Maple Leafs 26-22 with goaltender Carey Price turning away 21 shots. New signing Tyler Toffoli had a goal and an assist, and Brendan Gallagher tallied the winning goal with 3:07 left in the third period. The win against Toronto snapped the Maple Leafs’ four-game win streak and held the league’s best team to only six shots in the third period.
The win against the Maple Leafs seemed extremely important not only because it showed that the Canadiens could remain competitive with the league’s best, but also that it would do wonders for the team’s chemistry. The Canadiens had their bye week after that 2-1 win, and former coach Claude Julien said:
“There absolutely was urgency for us. Let’s not kid ourselves, if we’d come out with another loss, that’s four losses in five games and then a week to sit on that, it makes a huge difference. This win here is one of those wins you need at the right time of the schedule. This was huge for us. It puts our mindset in a much better position.”
Former Montréal Canadiens’ coach Claude Julien on their performance after the 2-1 win against the Maple Leafs on Feb. 12, 2021
A Disappointing Return
Despite the optimism from the coaches and players heading into the bye week, it didn’t translate to success afterwards. Their next game on Feb. 19 was also against the Maple Leafs, which they lost 5-3. Auston Matthews had four points, and Montréal surrendered three power-play goals. Canadiens forward Paul Byron noted that the lack of a consistent penalty kill cost them the game, as although they were able to score responding goals multiple times, the three power-play goals created a gap that was too big to come back from.
The Canadiens also had a goal from forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi disallowed in the second period. A review by the league office in Toronto determined the Kotkaniemi interfered with Maple Leafs’ net minder Frederik Andersen after his stick pushed the goaltender’s pad. The disallowed goal was an omen for what was to come later in the week.
The disappointing performance against the Maple Leafs was quickly followed by back-to-back overtime losses against the 6-14-1 Ottawa Senators, the last-place team in the NHL. Although backup netminder Jake Allen made 36 saves and both Nick Suzuki and Corey Perry got on the board for the Canadiens, the Habs’ defence buckled at a critical time, allowing Brady Tkachuk to score the overtime winner on a shot that deflected off the Canadiens’ Alexander Romanov. It was the second time in two games that the postgame pressers reflected the mistakes they were making, with Julien saying Montréal gave away too many breakaway chances; the hockey IQ, it seems, has fallen away from the team a little.
The game against the Senators the next day was not better. Tkachuk again made the difference for the Senators, scoring two goals, while Josh Norris and Tim Stützle scored in the shootout to sweep the Canadiens in the two-game set. Montréal quickly found themselves down 2-0 in the first period, but clawed back to tie the game in the second period. Toffoli scored the go-ahead goal before Tkachuk tied the game again.
The heartbreak came late in the third period after blueliner Ben Chiarot appeared to score the winner with 2.1 seconds remaining in the third. The Senators challenged for goalie interference, and the goal was disallowed after review, as Brendan Gallagher had been in the crease and interfered with Senators’ goaltender Matt Murray. This game symbolized the struggles the Habs have been having recently, as they’ve been in all of the games but some sort of mistake has ultimately cost them the victory or the chance to win.
The Canadiens’ last four games exemplify what’s been both good and bad about their season so far; they’ve proven they can compete with the better teams in their division, but have also shown very obvious weaknesses in their overall game. The penalty kill, once thought to be improved, has sputtered. They can shut down teams, but also give up too many chances.
Hopefully new interim coach Dominique Ducharme can help iron out some of the large wrinkles.