The Montreal Canadiens seemed to be seriously underrated heading into this season.
In NHL.com’s predictions for the 2020-21 season, four of their 15 writers had the Canadiens missing the playoffs. Four more had them just making it in fourth in the all-Canadian North Division.
That’s more than half putting the Canadiens either right on the playoff bubble or out of the playoffs entirely.
It’s easy to understand why: the Canadiens finished 12th in the Eastern Conference last season with a .500 record, only making the playoffs because of the unprecedented qualifying round that allowed them to stun the Pittsburgh Penguins in a five-game series. No offence meant to Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, but they lack true star power up front, their defence is getting a little long in the tooth, and Carey Price is 33 and had a .909 save percentage last season.
Naturally, three weeks into the 2020-21 season, the Canadiens have the best record in the North and lead the NHL in goal differential. They’ve lost just one game in regulation, largely because Jacob Markstrom did what Jacob Markstrom does. Suddenly they look like they might be the team to beat.
In four games against the Canucks, the Canadiens have averaged 38 shots per game and scored 23 goals. Aside from their first matchup, where the power play evened the odds, the Canucks haven’t looked like they belong on the same ice with the Canadiens.
The Canucks, who looked like they were turning the corner with their series against the Ottawa Senators and a solid defensive performance against the Winnipeg Jets, suddenly found themselves right back at square one on Monday night.
“I think when you look at that trend, it’s a little less about us figuring out our game the last little bit and more about us playing the Canadiens,” said Braden Holtby. “Obviously that’s where the trend is and it’s going to have to change. We’ve got to make sure we’re better.”
The Canucks gave up 40 shots to the Canadiens, but more than that, they gave up innumerable odd-man rushes and breakaways thanks to giveaways and turnovers.
“They’re quick, they get on you fast,” said head coach Travis Green. “As a player and you know it’s coming, you have to be ready for it and you have to be able to handle it, but then it’s also decision making. You try to make plays standing still, you try to make cross-ice plays inside the blue line, it’s a recipe for disaster.
“The part for me that's frustrating is that we knew that coming into the game. We talked about it. That was the main topic of our game. And you look at the first five goals, it was pretty easy to see.”
The most dangerous element of the Canadiens’ relentless pressure on the puck is that every single one of their lines can hurt you off of a turnover. What they lack in star power up front, they make up with depth, coming at you line after line.
They have bonafide top-six forward — and the team’s leading goalscorer this season — on their third line in Tyler Toffoli. On the fourth line, they can ice a sparkplug with a couple of 20-goal seasons under his belt in Paul Byron along with a consistent double-digit goalscorer in Artturi Lehtonen.
Along with that depth, there were signs last season that they were a better team than their .500 record indicated. They had the second-best corsi percentage in the NHL and had the second-most high-danger scoring chances, both behind the Vegas Golden Knights. Many analysts suggested they were due for regression this season.
So, how do you beat a team that’s rolling the way the Canadiens are. Like Henry David Thoreau said, they must “simplify, simplify.”
“They're a team that pressures,” said Holtby. “They pressure at their blue line when we have the puck. To beat that, you've got to simplify. In order for us to have success, we play a simple game. We have guys that can work, guys that can play within a system and if we have some guys not doing that, some guys doing it, it doesn't work very well.
“We've seen that in the past and that goes for any team, and against a team that wants to pressure and wants to kind of go, the simpler the better. And we know that now we've just got to go execute.”
I know that it’s time for me to execute writing this article after I watched this game.
- “Games like tonight probably frustrate me more than others because I felt like, as good a team as they are, we kind of shot ourselves in the foot again,” said Green about all of the turnovers. “That can drive you crazy as a coach, I guess, and players on the team as well. The saying, ‘The definition of insanity is repeating the same things over and over and expecting different results,’ that was kind of the story tonight.”
- This game definitely felt like a repeat of what we saw in the Canucks’ home series against the Canadiens: turnover after turnover. This game saw more turnovers than a Malibu beach during sunbathing season.
- The opening goal wasn’t off a turnover, exactly. J.T. Miller rushed to pick off a breakout pass at the blue line, but it hit a loose stick and deflected out for a 3-on-2 rush for the Canadiens. The bigger issue was the defensive breakdown on the backcheck: Miller and Quinn Hughes ended up standing beside the net, with no one checking Nick Suzuki in front. Suzuki made like a GSX and drove it home.
- That goal’s on Miller, in my books. Hughes was on Josh Anderson while defending the 3-on-2 and had to close off that side of the net to prevent a potential wraparound as Anderson retrieved the puck. Miller skated back hard on the backcheck, but never picked up the third man in the 3-on-2, who was Suzuki.
- The 2-0 goal was definitely off a turnover. Adam Gaudette was the last man back on the power play and mishandled a pass on his backhand. Lehkonen was all over him immediately, stealing the puck and beating Holtby five-hole with a deke to the backhand.
- “I was just trying to collect the puck and get my head up, but they're a hard-pressure team and they were on us quick and I just fumbled it,” said Gaudette, owning the mistake after the game. “I wasn't trying to toe-drag anybody, last guy back. That's not my style of play. I just fumbled it a little bit and should have made a decision quicker and just chipped it.”
- To Gaudette’s credit, he was there on the post-game Zoom call with the media, facing the music. The top line of Miller, Elias Pettersson, and Brock Boeser had one of their worst games of the season — they were on the ice for three goals against at 5-on-5 and got out-shot by a wide margin — but none of them were made available to the media after the game.
- Also to Gaudette’s credit, he responded to his gaffe with a goal. He picked off a pass in the neutral zone and took it himself, shading into the middle of the ice then throwing an eephus pitch that fooled Price.
- The Canadiens regained the two-goal lead before the end of the first off another turnover. Hughes fanned on a ring-around attempt, then Miller abandoned his position to pressure the puck, leaving Jeff Petry wide open to walk in and pick a corner. Again, it wasn’t just the turnover, it was the defensive breakdown that came after.
- Second periods have been disastrous for the Canucks this season and this one was no different. They gave up three unanswered goals to put the game out of reach heading into the third. Again, it was turnover after turnover. The period saw more turnovers than Paul Hollywood’s oven.
- Jalen Chatfield was the culprit on the 4-1 goal. He tried to do a little too much, skating through the neutral zone instead of waiting for the Canucks to complete a change. His dump-in was picked off for a breakaway for Brendan Gallagher, who deked to the backhand and went top shelf where Grandma hides her best whiskey.
- On the 5-1 goal, it was Miller’s turn to give the puck away. He tried to force a cross-ice pass instead of moving the puck more safely down the boards, then pursued the puck instead of retreating into the neutral zone. That gave the Canadiens a 4-on-2 — the rare even-man rush — and Perry made a dandy move around Hughes to set up Petry for a tap-in goal.
- Finally, the Canadiens added a goal on the power play, which mercifully wasn’t off a turnover. In fact, the penalty kill did a great job clearing the puck until it hit a spot of bad luck: a Petry slap shot hit Tyler Myers, sending the giant to his knees in pain. That took him out of the play just long enough for Shea Weber to set up Tyler Toffoli in front for his sixth goal in four games against his former teammates.
- The Canucks’ best line on the night was their fourth line, which is generally a bad sign. Tyler Motte and Jay Beagle were legitimately fantastic in this game, getting in on the forecheck and creating some momentum every shift, mainly with Jake Virtanen on the other wing, but also Zack MacEwen later in the game. They ate up the Canadiens’ young third pairing of Victor Mete and Alexander Romanov.
- The fourth line was rewarded with a goal in the third period, even if it was an empty accomplishment in a 6-2 game. Alex Edler pinched down the boards and put the puck behind the net for Motte, who swung it neatly out front for Beagle, who was left wide open by Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Like he was on a paleo diet, Beagle went against the grain, beating Price over the glove.
- The Canucks gave up a couple more breakaways for good measure, but Holtby turned those chances aside to keep the score somewhat respectable. I mean, 6-2 looks bad, but 7-2 and 8-2 look worse. This game saw more breakaways than a Kelly Clarkson tour.
- “They’re a good team, but in order for us to get where we want to go, we’ve got to believe we’re the better team and that starts from our leadership,” said Holtby. “We know we have the talent to succeed in the personnel. It’s just using adversity like this to push forward and not backwards, and that falls on especially the veteran guys to lead the way to push us in the direction we want to go.”