It seemed like just yesterday that the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs were fighting for first place. Now the gap is five points and Edmonton is closer to Montreal than Montreal is to Toronto.
Though the Oilers have played two more games, a win for Edmonton on Thursday night would have meant the two clubs were tied for second in the North Division.
Montreal needed to get back to their winning ways, but the slump moved into a fourth game as the Oilers played their best game of the year winning 3-0.
There is really nothing to put in this category but the goalie.
The Canadiens were out-chanced by a wide margin in this one. The close shots on goal total was flattering to Montreal. The Oilers held a wide edge in quality opportunities. If Jake Allen wasn’t sharp, and got help from the goal posts three times, this could have been very ugly.
It is natural for a high shooting percentage team to revert to the mean, but this is startling.
Certainly, the Canadiens club doesn’t have a Connor McDavid or Alexander Ovechkin, so no one should have expected that Montreal would remain the highest-scoring team in the league, but to crash this significantly is quite something to behold.
The Habs have scored only six goals in their last four games. They have kept the goals against down to reasonable levels, but now cannot connect at all offensively, and as a result, this once-exciting team has become a hard watch.
However, a season has ups and downs. They likely are not as good as that first road trip, and they are likely not as bad as this home stand. Still, somewhere in the middle is extremely disappointing to a fan base that was very excited that this year might be different — that, finally, this year would be more than just the usual fight for a playoff spot.
A bit of bad luck for the Canadiens started the Oilers on their way to the game’s first goal.
Nick Suzuki was trying a dump in on a line rush that accidentally hit an Oilers player at the blue line, which led to Edmonton on a rush that the defenders did not play well.
Firstly, Joel Edmundson was turnstiled, but there was still hope. That hope was dashed when Jeff Petry was unable to stop a cross ice pass. Jake Allen had no chance on the shot.
It was 1-0 after one, but it was a period where the Canadiens continued to look second best — the dominating hockey of the first nine games gone for a fourth straight contest.
Early in the second, the poor luck continued as Jake Allen made an excellent first save, but Shea Weber’s clearing attempt went off the back of the leg of Philip Danault, then back to Weber who then tried to clear it in a panic, but redirected it into the net.
It was bizarre. It was more unlucky than the first goal against the Canadiens, but they all count. And they all had heads down at the Montreal bench.
The tide continues to change on this season. The bad momentum has to change soon, or the 7-1-2 start that they had last year will become eerily unsettling to fans that something very bad could be happening again. It won’t get easier with Toronto the opponent on Saturday.
Against the Toronto Maple Leafs, what didn’t get a lot of attention considering everyone was focused on Carey Price is that the Montreal Canadiens are short a puck-moving defenceman.
Using the metric Goals Expected Percentage, the top five lines in the league have three from Montreal. Nick Suzuki’s line, Philip Danault’s line, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s line, when Joel Armia is on it, are ranked second, fourth, and fifth in the NHL. Offensively, that is a domination that every team in the league would love.
However, the defenders do not have the same domination. It’s difficult to construct the perfect line-up in the cap world. There is always going to be a hole or two due to spending constraints. The Canadiens’ hole is they don’t have enough defenders who can transition quickly, and quarterback the power play.
The defender that stood out against that talented Toronto club was Jeff Petry. He’s a terrific skater who can head-man the pass, or he take the puck up the ice himself as well. Petry can also defend effectively. Right now, he is one of the best defenders in the modern game — a game concentrating more and more on the importance of fast transition.
After Petry, though, then what?
Montreal fans, if they watch only Montreal, will not have seen the remarkable ability of some of the game’s young defenders to make outstanding quick decisions to get the puck up ice, and also superb quarterbacking passes on the power play. The Canadiens lack this player on their top power play unit. While Shea Weber has a big shot, people know it is coming. Weber is more a complementary piece on the power play in today’s game. The power play needs to have more options than just a big shot. No one is suggesting that it’s easy to find a Cale Makar, but that’s the style of player that is missing on the Habs roster.
The Canadiens need a puck-moving defender to not only help the power play, but also to get the puck up the ice quickly to free the forwards. The Canadiens game is predicated on speed, but they can’t show that speed when they are only in second gear waiting for a pass.
Ben Chiarot had a difficult night not moving the puck fast enough against the Leafs. It was especially evident on a 4-on-4 that the Leafs had 90 seconds of pressure when Chiarot was simply not quick enough. He had the puck on his stick twice, but could not move it up.
Chiarot defends well when the job is banging bodies and winning pucks, but that is not all that makes a strong modern day defender. When Chiarot is with Weber, then that is two players with the same skill set who are not moving it up ice quickly.
The hope is that Alexander Romanov is that puck-moving defender when he gets more experience at the NHL level. Romanov is off to a strong start as a pro in a very difficult position to be good in year one. He has the potential, but not now.
There will be nights this season that the scorers can’t score, but overall, the Canadiens are tops in the league in goals. There will be nights that the goalies can’t register a .920 save percentage, but overall, no one is really fearful that Carey Price and Jake Allen can’t eventually get this done in the net.
However, it is difficult to see how with this present roster, the Canadiens can get their speed up and their transition game going from the back end. As the roster is constructed presently, that’s the true glitch in the Matrix.
It’s the glitch the Maple Leafs can and have exploited.
— Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.