The Montreal Canadiens headed into their affair with the Ottawa Senators Tuesday night with the ignominious distinction of having a losing record against one of the worst teams in hockey.
So far, this year’s Senators are last year’s Detroit Red Wings, and if this continues, the Senators could be the obstacle to a playoff spot. So Montreal had to figure out how to not make an average team look like the Central Red Army.
The Canadiens did just that as they beat the improving Senators 3-1.
It took three games, but the new head coach, Dominique Ducharme, has now made a usage change that looks very good for the Canadiens overall.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi finally got on the power play in a big way, instead of sporadically. This is something that seems obvious as a must. Kotkaniemi’s greatest gift as a player is his passing ability and his vision. His greatest weakness as a player as he continues to fill into his lanky body is his puck-battling ability.
With the extra man, Kotkaniemi has plenty of time and space to search for open players who can get good opportunities. When Montreal had three straight power plays, Kotkaniemi was on for much of it. He was double shifted, in fact, and the Canadiens scored twice.
Look at that: no constantly leaning on a 55-foot Shea Weber slap shot and they scored twice. Kotkaniemi, when he only plays 5-on-5, often finds he has lost a puck battle to end the positive sequence. He will improve at this, but for now, if there is a drawback to Kotkaniemi, this is it.
It’s not to say that he didn’t have a strong game in all aspects, because he did. It is to say, though, that if you want to watch this young man excel, give him a chance to excel. Good coaching is assessing your personnel’s talents, and then letting them gain confidence with those assets. Kotkaniemi wasn’t drafted third because they all thought that he was good 5-on-5. They drafted him third because they loved his passing and vision.
The new power play coach Alex Burrows gets praise for recognizing there is a hidden asset on the team not living up to his potential, and together with Ducharme, they’re giving him a big chance to show some of it. Well done by the coaches. Well done by the young Finn.
It’s only been three games, and so far there really has not been much different in terms of usage, but there has been in terms of style.
One aspect of the game has been the puck support between players. When one Canadiens player has it in the defensive zone trying to get it out, there are options now for the player to get the job done. He doesn’t see no one close to help; instead, he sees two players close. Puck support is something every coach preaches, but sometimes the message gets lost when a player is more interested in getting down ice for breakaways or trying to get the speed game up before the puck is out of the defensive zone.
The players are getting the message. The club is tighter from game one to game three under the new regime.
Another way that a new coach can make a difference is by sending a positive message that can change the outlook for those who have played as if they are more worried about mistakes that creating.
There are two very clear cases on the Canadiens since the new head coach began. Jonathan Drouin looks like a different player. This is not to say that Drouin wasn’t good this year. He has been good, but since the change, he looks rejuvenated. He is playing free and easy. He is playing with great confidence. It’s uplifting to see him actually want the puck, and to believe that he can create with it.
The second player is Alexander Romanov, who is not going to stay on the third pairing playing like this. There were so many good things from the Russian defender in this one. Romanov stepped up to make a huge hit. He also skated the puck up ice freely, instead of always dumping it in. He had an offensive chance from a high-danger area that hit the goal post.
Romanov is going to have a great career. He is playing this well in his rookie season on the wrong side, as well. It’s easy to wonder just how good he could be on the correct side, and if it is a hindrance at all. You can’t know until we actually see him on the left.
For now, even on the wrong side, Romanov looks like he’s going to be a great one. The rookie season for a defender is supposed to have some growing pains. So far, there aren’t too many moments of pain for Romanov. Just a little section of the season where he got safe and timid which could have been a message from a conservative coach, but that has now passed.
It’s enjoyable to see him play with some freedom.
Joel Edmundson is an interesting case study. He’s playing strong hockey for the Canadiens, but it’s hard for him to get any praise.
It has little to do with his play. It mostly has to do with the fact that he was not the player that the Canadiens needed in the off-season.
They needed a puck mover on a team sadly lacking in puck movers from the blue line. Edmundson can be a bit lumbering at times, but, for the most part, he makes solid decisions, and uses his strong body to get the job done in the corners and in front of the net.
Edmundson was the primary architect of an effective kill in the first period. At one point, he laid out a huge hit on Brady Tkachuk which always makes the Canadiens fans happy. Edmundson has been one of the steadiest defenders on the team all year. It’s not his fault that GM Marc Bergevin didn’t address the need for another puck mover from the blue line. He’s doing his job well.
Though it was not easy, there were no goats for the Canadiens in this one. It was a solid team effort.
Don’t fixate on the score. It was a strong game. The Canadiens were particularly dominant in the final five minutes. They had down low pressure in the Ottawa zone for almost the entirety. That’s extremely difficult to do psychologically when you are up by one. It’s normal to hang back and give 100 feet up, but they stayed in the offensive zone and worked.
The clock and game management was impressive. No goats for an outstanding game from Montreal. Sure, they had some issues finishing still, but the tenor of the game was theirs.
There have been very few line changes and pairing changes since Dominique Ducharme took over from Claude Julien. It’s disappointing for people looking for something exciting, and expecting it considering what the former coach was doing wasn’t working.
The only significant change that Ducharme has made was to put Tomas Tatar back on the Philip Danault line. This is a smart move as it is one of the top lines in the league in analytics for the last three years. Together, these three are better as the sum of their parts than they are as individuals.
What was also disappointing for those clamouring for change was in the 3-on-3 overtime in Winnipeg the head coach opted for the same style of manpower as Julien before him.
It’s an illogical way to think about getting an extra point with that five minutes: to defend your own net. No one can take that one point away from either team, so go and attack to get the second point. Ducharme said he was thinking of winning the draw and getting through the first 50 seconds, then taking advantage on the second shift. It never got to the second shift. The defenders were unable to defend, and they sure didn’t get an opportunity to attack. Joel Armia and Philip Danault are not designed to get that extra point with offensive flair and finish.
This is a change that needs to be addressed overall. The Canadiens already have five overtime losses. They would be in a lot better shape in the standings if they could correct this ideological deficiency.
While it appears to be status quo on many fronts, one area in which the team is improving slowly is the support of the puck carrier. The Canadiens were very good in their second game of making sure that their puck carrier had options close by to pass to in order to forward the play into the attacking zone.
It was evidenced by a large shot advantage and a large scoring-chance advantage. However, the Canadiens were undone by their poor shooting percentage again.
In fact, if one researches fully what is happening to the Canadiens team this season, we see a club that is tops in 5-on-5 play, but doing poorly in vital areas: the shooting percentage is at eight per cent and needs to be at 10, the save percentage is .895 and needs to be at .915, and the special teams is on the bottom half of the league and needs to move to the top half.
Most of a hockey game is played at 5-on-5, so there is hope considering the Habs are firing pucks from high danger areas that they will figure out how to not either miss the net or hit the goalie’s crest. Shooting percentage can not remain at eight, meaning they are allowing a goalie to look like he is a .920. That is an extremely good percentage, and the Habs shooters should break through that to reduce the appearance that they are facing Dominick Hasek every game.
In both areas that the Canadiens are suffering, one should presume better will come. Both of their goalies are strong. Both should be strong soon. Their shooters are better than this. They shoot look better soon. The longer the sample size, the longer these statistics have a chance to reverting to their mean.
This is the blueprint for the Canadiens to do better. It’s a probability, in fact, that they do improve to that blueprint, at least, in some measure.
We shall see.
— Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.