Scratching Jordie Benn was meant to send a message to a Montreal Canadiens defence corps that has struggled throughout the season. Unfortunately for head coach Claude Julien, defense was the least of his team’s issues versus the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night.
As it has for most of the season, the Canadiens’ inability to score cost them a chance to win. Against backup goalie Carter Hutton, the Habs had flashes of offense – 34 shots on goal, 39 scoring chances and 10 high danger chances – but only Charles Hudon capitalized, scoring with 1:07 left to play on a five-minute power play. Artturi Lehkonen and Nicolas Deslauriers both recorded three shots and Brendan Gallagher added three high-danger chances, but Hutton stood tall, beating the Canadiens 3-1 for his 13th win in 23 games this season.
“We didn’t generate much offensively. It’s the same old story,” said Julien following Montreal’s 24th regular season loss. “We have to find ways to get on the inside. We’re shooting from the outside, but we had nothing on the inside. We need to be much better in that area if we plan on winning games and scoring some goals.”
We had some chances in that first period, but nothing to show for it. It’s disappointing because we could have come down with the lead very easily.
Scoring Not Easy in Montreal
For the 17th time this season, the Canadiens failed to score more than one goal in a game. Their 2.56 goals for per game ranks 28th in the NHL, and, to make matters worse, their third-highest goal scorer was injured versus the Blues. Paul Byron, who has 14 goals this season, was hurt late in the third period when he was pushed head first into the boards by defenceman Colton Parayko. Byron was in visible discomfort as he skated off the ice and avoided moving his right shoulder as much as possible.
Losing Byron not only weakens a forward group already sparse of talent and depth but also leaves Julien with another hole down the middle. With Phillip Danault and Andrew Shaw injured, Byron has played at centre in six of the last eight games. Julien was unsure of Byron’s status after the game but did not appear to be too concerned.
“I don’t think there’s been anything overly alarming, but for right now, we’ll have more to say about it tomorrow,” said Julien.
The Canadiens’ blue line, which was the focus going into Tuesday’s game, fared relatively well against a Blues team that ranks fifth in the NHL. At even-strength, St. Louis registered 22 shots on goal – zero in the first 13:10 of the first period – and scored just one of three goals, with one coming on the power play, and one empty-netter while shorthanded. At 5v5, puck possession was about the same, with Montreal just edging St. Louis out in Corsi-for percentage (50.96%-49.04%).
Joe Morrow, who served in Benn’s place, was arguably the Canadiens’ best defender versus the Blues, registering a team-high 72.41% Corsi-for percentage in 19:04 of 5v5 time on ice. Jeff Petry and David Schlemko blocked six and five shots respectively, and Victor Mete recorded one shot and one scoring chance in the 35th game of his rookie season.
How much of an effect their coach’s roster decision had on their performance against the Blues is impossible to measure, but the message was received, and Julien was pleased with his defencemen’s efforts on Tuesday.
“They were a lot better than they were last game,” said Julien. “When they decide to focus on their work defensively, things like that come out.”
The loss in St. Louis puts the Canadiens record to 20-24-6 on the season. With the playoffs out of sight, expect Montreal’s bench boss to continue making roster decisions like he did on Tuesday, and if his forwards continue to perform as they have in past, things could be changing on offence.
“There’s other guys struggling,” said Julien. “If they don’t pick up their game, they’ll get their turn as well.”