This feels like a breaking point for the Montreal Canadiens, who are hanging their heads over a 3-2 overtime loss to an Ottawa Senators team bringing up the rear in the all-Canadian North Division.
That’s four in the last five, it’s five of the last seven, and the Canadiens need to pick themselves up and reverse this immediately before it gets any further out of hand.
So here’s looking at Claude Julien and his coaching staff; at 35-year-old captain Shea Weber; at alternates Paul Byron and Brendan Gallagher; at struggling forwards Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar; at Carey Price; at Stanley Cup winners Jake Allen, Joel Edmundson, Tyler Toffoli and Corey Perry.
Because it’s not up to 20-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi or 21-year-old Nick Suzuki to steady this group and get it back on the rails.
Though it is Suzuki who identified why the Canadiens have only managed more than two goals in just one of their last seven games.
“I think we’re pretty much all up in our own heads right now,” he said after scoring 1:17 into Sunday’s game and making a mistake that started the play that led to a goal at the other end eight minutes and 30 second later. “I think just overthinking it, playing not to lose, and that’s never a good thing to do. I think at the start of the season we were real energized and everyone was having fun. It’s just that’s gotten away from us.”
Julien is in his 18th season behind an NHL bench. He’s seen enough of these bad stretches to know where the solution lies.
“It’s just a matter of simplifying your game and playing with some confidence and making things happen,” he said. “At the end of the day, we should’ve simplified our game. Some of the breakaways we give is we’re playing high-risk hockey at times. We’re making some decisions that are high-risk and it ends up costing us. So we just need to settle down here and play a more stable type of game.”
Julien must get the Canadiens to do that immediately—after they played right into Toronto’s hands on Saturday and gave the Senators four power plays, five breakaways and the game-winning goal Brady Tkachuk scored on Sunday—or that 7-1-2 start to the season won’t be the only thing flushed away. He needs to get his message across, get back to the drawing board on a power play that started well and has since scored just once over its last 19 opportunities, and he needs to help re-instill some confidence in his group.
But Julien can’t do it alone. He can’t do it at all without the veterans we mentioned above passing on his message.
That Perry echoed it post-game is a sign Julien still has his team’s attention.
“We just have to limit our mistakes, limit the turnovers,” the 35-year-old, who scored late in the third period to tie the game 2-2, said. “It’s all about us. We sometimes give them more than they deserve and that’s about taking care of the pucks in the right situations and knowing what’s on the clock or whatever it is. We’ll fix it, and we’ll move forward.”
The Canadiens can’t afford another step back. They’ve got another game against this plucky Senators team Tuesday before two to close out the week against a Winnipeg Jets team that pulled ahead in the standings. Everything has tightened around them, with Edmonton surging and the struggling Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks not far behind.
And you can tell the Canadiens feel the walls closing in.
Suzuki confirmed it, saying he can sense the tension on the ice, on the bench and in the room.
“Overthinking is a big thing in hockey,” he said. “I’ve gone through it the last few games (he went four without a point prior to Sunday’s game). I’m just trying to play simple. I know we’re not scoring as much as we did at the start of the season. We know we have to bear down on those chances and a couple of those opportunities to shoot where we’re looking to pass. We’ve just got to keep it simple as a team and get back to basics of what we were doing before.”
No one expected the Canadiens were going to continue scoring four-and-a-half goals per game like they did over their first 10, but they can’t be forcing things so much and sacrificing their defensive structure to get over three.
They made a mess of things against Ottawa. If it wasn’t for Allen, who made 36 saves—six of them in the dying minutes on plays that could’ve ended the game well before Tkachuk one-timed a puck that banked off exhausted Canadiens defenceman Alexander Romanov—this game never would’ve made it to overtime.
“He gave us a great performance, and gave us a chance to at least get a point,” said Julien.
And Allen spent the rest of his night watching the Canadiens work hard but not smart.
“No question goals are tough to come by right now, but that’s going to happen,” he said. “They were pouring in at the start of the year. They’re drying up a little bit right now. They’ll come back. We have too good players and too many guys that work too hard in this locker room for the puck to not go in the net. It’s gonna come.”
It has to. Not now, but right now.