Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens shut out by San Jose Sharks 5-0

It seems hard to believe, but before Tuesday night, the San Jose Sharks had beaten the Montreal Canadiens nine straight times. That run needed to change, considering the Habs had already started the year with three straight losses.

The train needed to go the other direction, but it was more of the same as the Canadiens were handled easily 5-0.

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Sometimes the road to a goal is travelled through the desire to be physically engaged: hit some people; feel it in your body; feel it in your adrenaline. Then head to the net and hit some more bodies. That’s often the pathway for the better player in you.

When things are going extremely badly, like the prospect of four losses in a row, you have to get engaged somehow. So you do what you can first, like hitting some players.

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This has often worked through the years when it feels like nothing will go right. If you concentrate on only goals, you will hold that stick a little tighter and your legs will be a little heavier.

However, the Canadiens had one hit in the entire first period, during which they found themselves quickly down by three goals. Josh Anderson had the hit in the attacking zone. Brendan Gallagher took on Erik Karlsson after the whistle in a half-fight. Apart from that, the club just wasn’t engaged enough to win pucks, battle for pucks or get their adrenaline going in any way possible.

When the final assessments are made, this is always about talent. But to release talent, sometimes you start with the adrenaline which, when engaged, frees your mind.

This club does not have a free mind at all.

An example is Cole Caufield, who mishandled the puck more in the first period than he did all of last season or two seasons in Wisconsin. It’s weird to see such a natural talent inside his own head. They’re all in their own heads at the moment.

Either that or they really are lacking this severely in talent. Don’t believe that. They’re not the Tampa Bay Lighting, but there is considerable talent on the club. They didn’t lose everyone in the off-season on the team that went to the Stanley Cup finals.

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They’ll figure this out in some capacity, at least. It will be interesting to see what the spark that ignites the better version of themselves proves to be.

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The Canadiens were outshot 10-3 in their own barn in the first period against a team expected to be one of the worst in hockey this season. The penalty kill continues to be awful, coming in just under 60 per cent on the season. That was a strong suit in the run to the Cup finals, where the Canadiens were nearly perfect and had nearly as many shorthanded goals as power play goals allowed while killing penalties through four rounds.

The power play is also struggling badly this season with no goals in 13 opportunities. The best chance was a Caufield shot that hit the post.

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The partnership of David Savard and Ben Chiarot continues to struggle. Early, it was Ben Chiarot with a pinch that meant Savard was by himself on a 2-on-1. That could have been traversed successfully as the first shot was saved, but the rebound was a goal thanks to the poor work of the forwards coming back quickly enough to implicate themselves.

Christian Dvorak was close, but his last four strides weren’t strides at all, just a coast to the goal. If he strides, he stops the goal from scoring.

It was Chiarot and Savard who were also on the ice for the game’s first goal. It was Savard who didn’t have his man in front of the net. That partnership is really struggling as they are both stay-at-home defenders. As a result, they are home more than unvaccinated partners during  the third wave outbreak of a pandemic.

The theory is collapse and absorb, or bend but don’t break. But, in truth, doesn’t that actually just mean you’re in your end all the time? The game is won at the other end.

This partnership has to be broken up. Both of these defenders need to be partnered with someone who can play at the other end, pass it up effectively to the other end, and skate to the other end with the puck.

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Bad luck happens to collapse and absorb defenders. Why? Because you are always playing in your own end where bad luck always happens. Good luck happens in the attacking zone.

Clearly, they are not in the opposition’s zone much because the Habs have only three goals in four games. That starts at the back end where the defenders are simply not able to transition quickly enough. It also is a commitment to the dirty areas. This one featured shots from 20 feet and out. That’s not going to beat NHL goalies of today.

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After taking 20 years to correct an issue, it feels like it is back again at some level. With the emergence of Philip Danault as one of the top two-way centres in hockey, the arrival of huge young talent Nick Suzuki, and the often strong play of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, it felt like the centre woes were in the past.

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However, only one of the three remains, and the loss of Danault is really being felt.

Danault played a strong defensive game against the top lines in the league while driving play with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar. In fact, the line was top five in the league in Corsi and expected goals the entire time that they were together.

What this line’s absence has meant even more — and which hasn’t been fully discussed — is that Nick Suzuki has to face the best line on the other team every night. The matchups for the Canadiens are all wrong now.

Danault would take the opposition’s top line all the time and would for the most part dominate that top line. Now, Suzuki must try to win the sheet against the best players in hockey. This matchup change is massive for the fortunes of the club.

All in all, perhaps GM Marc Bergevin should have found the extra $500,000 for Danault when he had the chance, because the Habs aren’t winning the middle of the ice anymore.

Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on after each Canadiens game.


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