Beginning Monday, the Montreal Canadiens will embark on a six-game western road trip with massive ramifications in the Scotia North Division standings. The vibe heading west is a positive one after a full team effort and offensive outburst that led to the shellacking of the Winnipeg Jets 7-1 on Saturday night. Carey Price was solid when he had to be against a flat Jets team that lacked their usual offensive potency and cohesion. The team will need to carry this momentum west and find different ways to win big. Most notably, they will need to play desperate.
The road trip begins with two games against the Vancouver Canucks before the Canadiens play two against the Calgary Flames. Every game is important in this six-game swing, but I want to emphasize the first four specifically. These teams, as of Sunday night, are four (Canucks) and three (Flames) points back of the Canadiens, although Montreal has a few games in hand. The Habs need to win these games in regulation, especially considering the standings and their inability to win beyond regulation. There are a few specific challenging areas where they will need to play with a particular level of desperation.
Canadiens Penalty Kill
This season the Canadiens are 4-0-1 when facing Vancouver, but don’t think stars like Elias Pettersson (who is listed as day-to-day with an injury at the moment), Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes and others have forgotten that. The B.C. team is riding a high of their own after back-to-back wins against the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs.
If the Canadiens are going to win these games and create separation between themselves and the Canucks, they will have to snap out of their penalty-killing funk by outworking their opponents. I went back and watched the Canucks power play goals the last several games. They score in a variety of ways: deflections, one-timers from the wings, rush opportunities, bumper shots from the slot. Once again, the Canadiens need to focus on tight checking pressure up ice against the Canucks. This is important on any penalty kill, and I have emphasized this in past articles, but the Canucks do tend to turn over the puck frequently when breaking out of their zone. If the Canadiens can outwork the Canucks in this area, it should lead to offensive opportunities while shorthanded.
Capitalizing Off the Rush
In addition, the Canadiens need to create offence off the rush against the Canucks. In their first 14 games this season, Vancouver gave up a league-high 19 goals off of the rush. This is an area to be exploited, as the Canucks seem to struggle more on the defensive side of the game, sitting currently at a minus-12 goal differential as a team.
There will be opportunities like Joel Armia’s on Saturday against the Jets, where the Canadiens quickly utilized the entire ice surface to create a goal. Creativity off of the rush will show definitively that the players have bought into Dominique Ducharme’s vision of a dynamic and creative offence, where chances are created in a variety of ways. Keep an eye on Jonathan Drouin in these situations. If he can raise his intensity and desperation level on this road swing, his play-making ability will get a chance to shine. With all that said, the Habs will need to be quick and desperate when turning the puck over.
Increasing the Physicality Against the Flames
The physical element of the Canadiens game will need to increase more so to match the Flames. The Flames fired head coach Geoff Ward last week and replaced him with veteran coach and two-time (as a coach) Stanley Cup champion Darryl Sutter. Similarly to the Canadiens, the Flames hoped a new voice would spark a team perceived up to this point by many as underachievers. However, the Flames lost their two games over the weekend while waiting for Sutter’s arrival, which is expected to be Monday (From ‘Flames Assistant Coach Huska Will run Bench Until Sutter’s Arrival’ – The Calgary Sun – 6-3-21).
The Flames do not play again until Thursday, meaning they will have several days of practice with their new coach (unlike the Canadiens did with Ducharme) to establish how they want to play. Knowing Sutter’s former teams, I am going to speculate that they will be very physical. The Canadiens must simply be willing to grind out wins in Calgary against a team that will themselves be desperate for wins. Quick puck movement on the breakouts should help relieve some of the physicality of the Flames, but in the end, the Canadiens are just going to need to want the win more.
For fans, this should be an exciting week. And they should look forward to playoff-style games with high intensity due to the high stakes.
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.