The Montreal Canadiens played arguably their worst game of the season Saturday night losing 5-0 to a more dialed-in Winnipeg Jets team. There was little intensity or will displayed outside of a few players here and there, mostly in garbage time when the game was already out of reach. You would have expected the opposite considering the Canadiens were coming off two straight losses against the Toronto Maple Leafs and the aforementioned Jets. On Saturday, though, the team looked like they were lacking confidence and certainty in their abilities and the mental mistakes began to mount too quickly for them to counter effectively.
This trend, or consistent lack of confidence, that has surfaced under Dominique Ducharme, is, admittedly and unfortunately, something the team also went through with former coach Claude Julien. However, with 18 games left, the Canadiens do not have time to dwell on who is at fault and I don’t expect them to. They already know. Simply put, the team assembled must play better.
Luckily for the Canadiens, they still sit six points ahead of the Calgary Flames for the final playoff position, a position that on the surface looks more precarious with each passing loss. However, according to Sportsclubstats, after the loss to the Jets Saturday, the Canadiens are still sitting at a 95.9 percent chance of making the playoffs. Regardless, the team’s Jekyll and Hyde performances are concerning moving forward. With injured players getting close to returning, the trade deadline approaching Monday, and the Canadiens’ AHL affiliate Laval Rocket playing extremely well, there are internal and possibly external reinforcements that can perhaps act as a remedy for their confidence issues.
Armia, Chiarot, and Price
The good news internally is forward Joel Armia (out due to COVID-19), defenseman Ben Chiarot (fractured hand), and goaltender Carey Price (undisclosed) are skating again and appear close to returning. This is particularly true in Armia’s case as he returned to regular practice duties this morning. Coach Ducharme said Sunday, “He should be back soon. Obviously, it won’t be tomorrow. It should happen at some point during the week. He had COVID-19 symptoms, but it wasn’t too bad. His symptoms were under control.”
Armia, who has endured some consistency issues of his own this season, should still help the team at even strength and on special teams. His presence simply gives the team more options. He is a reliable defensive player who can chip in offensively. Players like Corey Perry, who has been a bright spot in recent games, will not be forced to play 18 minutes a night and everyone can be slotted accordingly. I think this should help provide the stability needed to re-establish some confidence among the team.
Chiarot has yet to practice and looks to still be out a while. He was first injured on March 10 and was expected to be out 6-8 weeks. He appears to be ahead of schedule, but the Canadiens could use him now. There has been debate about Chiarot’s use on the top pair with Shea Weber. That is fair, but it is also fair to say he is a capable top-six defender who would also help stabilize a lineup in need of help. I see his mobility as underrated and his puck-moving skills sufficient enough to support the team’s quick breakouts and transition game. If these areas can be improved, it should lead to wins and confidence.
Finally, in regard to Price. He, too, has faced his share of criticism this season due to up and down performances. However, the last game he played prior to getting injured was a win against the Edmonton Oilers. Notably, this was the last win for the team. Including the win in Edmonton, Price had gone 7-2-2 through March and the first two games of April.
I am not suggesting his absence is the cause of the Canadiens’ lack of confidence, but perhaps there is some correlation. Within the dressing room, they still regard Price as one of the best in the world, so it is not a stretch to imagine from a psychological standpoint that his injury hurts the team in several ways. His return is expected soon, possibly even this week. When he returns, I expect the team will have some extra jump in their step.
Caufield, Poehling, and the Laval Rocket
Aside from full-time roster players, the Canadiens have options in Laval, such as Hobey Baker winner Cole Caufield or Ryan Poehling. Caufield has already made a splash in his first two pro-level games scoring three goals, including two game-winners. Poehling, on the other hand, has 19 points in 25 games, which is an expression of his improved play.
Both are playing with confidence, so giving either one of them a shot could help the team. Confidence in sports is contagious they say. However, if they join a struggling team with heightened pressure to perform and it does not go well, that may be harmful to their own confidence.
Ideally, I think the Canadiens would be better served to leave these two in Laval for the time being. If things continue to go south for the team they may have to consider them as viable options.
The Trade Deadline
Bergevin could additionally add another player before Monday’s trade deadline. He did so already adding defenseman Jon Merrill from the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday morning. This should solidify the bottom defensive pair. In addition, it should give Chiarot more time to heal before returning. There will be no rushing him back. Merrill will not be available for some time as he will have to put in his seven-day quarantine time. Unless more deals are made soon, this will be where the Habs stand moving forward.
Now, it is clear that the return of injured players to some extent puts the Canadiens back at square one. That is true, but I think that lineup should definitively secure a playoff spot for the team. I am not saying they will win the Stanley Cup — they may not even win a single round — but the return of their injured players should give them enough to confidence to be a difficult out against any opponent when the times comes.
Until then, the Canadiens’ next game is Monday against the division-leading Maple Leafs, so you should expect a similar lineup that played against the Jets on Saturday. This will be a big test again for the team. If the group as it is now can pull off a win, even an ugly win, that will go a long way to helping their mindset, too.
Hello there, folks! My name is Stephen Michaud. Like so many in Canada, I grew up playing the game of hockey from a young age. My passion for playing spawned a yearning for following the NHL and other leagues around the world. Here at The Hockey Writers I have been tasked with covering the Montreal Canadiens, which I hope to do in a detailed and honest fashion.