There was much to like after finally seeing these new-look Canadiens in action Wednesday night. I wish I could say the same about the old-look coach.
The Habs should have won that game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. You’re up 3-1 halfway through a road game, you’d better win that game. But Montreal let it slip away, 5-4.
I loved what I saw of the new kids on the block. Tyler Toffoli had a strong game even if he didn’t make it onto the score sheet. Brian Burke is right, Alexander Romanov is a stud. And what can you say about Josh Anderson? Oh my. Did Max Domi play a single game as intense as that last season? No, didn’t think so.
Go back and re-watch the sequence on the second Anderson goal. Like the great Bob Cole would say — Oh baby! He just barrels past John Tavares, making the Leafs captain look like a minor-leaguer and drives right to the net for the goal. Looks like we’ll be seeing that play a whole lot this season and that’s pretty cool. The last Montreal power forward with this kind of ferocity and skill was a beast named Alexander Radulov.
So, I’m as excited as the rest of you. But the way the hockey chatter has been rocking in the past couple of days in Montreal, you’d be excused for thinking the Canadiens won their first game. They didn’t. They lost and that loss is entirely on head coach Claude Julien.
Read between the lines in Julien’s comments last season and you can tell he felt he had a team that was anything but a contender. He would often say words to the effect that he was doing the best he could with what he had.
Well this year Julien’s boss Marc Bergevin gave him a team. To quote a phrase that used to be the team’s motto — no excuses! Sadly what Julien did Wednesday night is what he’s done so often in the past, just like his predecessor Michel Therrien also used to do. He had his team play not to lose rather than to win.
In the last five minutes of regulation time, with the score tied at 4-4, the Leafs were buzzing the Habs net and had a couple of quality chances to end this thing before OT. Meanwhile, to quote another classic Cole-ism, the Habs were just hanging on. How bizarre was that?
Well not nearly as bizarre as what happened in overtime. Julien started Phillip Danault, Anderson and Shea Weber, in a move that had many of us unhappily thinking back to those bad old days when Therrien used to put Tomas Plekanec out in OT.
Think about this. The kindly ol’ coach puts out two of three players — Weber and Danault — who are highly unlikely to score a goal in three-on-three overtime. You just don’t get more old-school than that and it makes zero sense in today’s NHL. You want to score. Someone needs to tell the coach there are no tie games any more.
At the other end of the ice, Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe sends out John Tavares, Morgan Rielly and William Nylander. Keefe gets that it’s about trying to score. So why doesn’t Julien?
The result is Weber sends Danault in on a clear breakaway where the Habs centreman has like minutes to figure out his best potential play on Frederik Andersen. That play turns out to be missing the net! Danault has many qualities, notably his ability to shut down some of the best lines in the National Hockey League, but he can’t score. That’s why he just isn’t an A-list No. 1 centre.
The most goals he’s ever scored in an NHL season are 13. That’s fine. He’s a defensive centre. But don’t put him out for a big chunk of your three-on-three in overtime.
Just as bad as Julien’s play-not-to-lose approach were his comments regarding Romanov. This 21-year-old Russian was phenomenal in his first-ever game in the best hockey league in the world. He looked like he’d been in the NHL for years. In his first shift, he hit Toffoli with a razor-sharp stretch pass in the neutral zone and the highlight-reel moment was his seeing-eye pass to Tomas Tatar, allowing Tuna to sail in home-free and score the Habs’ third goal.
Yet somehow in a short clip after the game, Julien managed to continue in the reprehensible tradition of the modern-day Habs and downplay a young player’s achievement.
“I didn’t hate his game at all,” said Julien. “For sure, there were little mistakes here and there but everyone made mistakes tonight.”
It’s the coach’s job to help build the confidence of his young players. Why not just say he was a stud? Sigh.
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