Montreal Canadiens unable to find scoring touch in Game 1 loss to New York Rangers
The New York Rangers’ Rick Nash defends goalie Henrik Lundqvist as the Montreal Canadiens’ Andrew Shaw drives to the net during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarter-finals in Montreal on Wednesday. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Even for a veteran of 55 playoff games, the atmosphere on the opening night of the postseason at the Bell Centre can create a sense of wonder.
“I’m a hockey fan too, I’ve been on other teams and watched on YouTube and seen some pretty cool things. To see it first hand, to feel the emotion, it’s free energy … to experience it first hand was real special,” said 34-year-old Steve Ott, acquired by the Montreal Canadiens at the trade deadline.
Shame about the downbeat ending, but that’s playoff hockey.
Ott’s main weapons on the hockey arena are his faceoff canniness and his mouth – he is among the game’s trash-talking savants – but this is not a player who’s lasted this long in pro hockey without the ability to break down a game.
And after the Habs’ 2-0 loss to the New York Rangers in the first-round opener, he put things in perspective.
Yes, Henrik Lundqvist is still a top goaltender despite this season’s struggles, and if Montreal needed a reminder, they got one on Wednesday.
No, there’s no need to drastically alter the approach.
“It’s a percentage-based game. (Lundqvist)’s a great goaltender, but when you’re putting up quality, grade ‘A’ scoring chances you’re going to find a way to score goals. For us the mindset is to clean a few things up, keep pounding pucks through traffic,” said Ott, who centred a fourth line between former third overall draft pick Alex Galchenyuk (the Habs’ highest drafted player since 1980) and Norwegian journeyman Andreas Martinsen.
That Ott could speak first-hand of golden scoring chances – his line had its share – was part of the Habs’ problem on this night.
Montreal managed to score 223 goals in the regular season, solidly in the middle of the NHL pack, but the narrative that this is a team that has chronic offensive woes is a stubborn one.
It may just be one game, but the Canadiens are already in a position where they must counter it.
In a salary cap world all teams have flaws; the question in Game 2 of the first round, and beyond, for the Habs will be their ability to paper theirs over convincingly.
The middle is a particular sore spot, and having Galchenyuk, who started the year as the centre of the top line, on the left side of a low ice-time energy unit probably isn’t helping.
It should be noted the 23-year-old American was a force this night, logging four shots (and missing three more) in a modest 13:52 of ice time (nearly 90 seconds of it on the power play).
Only captain Max Pacioretty and defenceman Shea Weber, who was immense in his first playoff game in a Habs uniform, tested Lundqvist more.
Coach Claude Julien has his reasons for shunting the youngster down his lineup. Galchenyuk’s luck has dried up over the past month, his defensive shortcoming have been magnified against top opposition, and anyway, Julien contends, the point is to spread out the scoring to take advantage of matchups.
The question is how far you can dilute a scarce resource, and at what cost?
Considering the contributions of top-three centres Philip Danault, Andrew Shaw and Tomas Plekanec (two shots combined in Game 1, both from Shaw) the Habs’ deficiencies up the middle are worth monitoring.
But one game does not a series make, and Julien talked afterward about the occasion calling for “adjustments rather than changes."
Julien rightly pointed out the result could have gone Montreal’s way – you can’t legislate against the backhander that fourth-line mucker Tanner Glass fired through several bodies into the top corner on the winning goal – and said, simply, that’s the playoffs.
“What you do is keep your composure, face the adversity … and get back to work,” he said.
Knowing Julien, he will come up for a plan to shore up the shortcomings from Game 1. Though he didn’t go into any great detail, he referenced the forecheck and detail work along the boards.
Danault said as much after his first NHL playoff game: “We weren’t as strong along the boards as usual, we lost a lot of puck battles, faceoffs are important too, we’ll have to work on it and be ready … it’s the small details, their defence closed gaps all night and it felt like we were chasing the puck at times. But overall we didn’t play badly.”
The Habs were disappointed at the outcome, but the high-danger scoring chances were mostly even.
As Danault, who also took a costly tripping penalty in the third, said: “There’s no panic, but we do have to step up for the next game.”
With Game 2 slated for Friday, Julien and his staff have time to brainstorm alterations to the game plan.
Whether that implies altering his lineup is an open question; if he does it will likely be a minor tweak or two.
Defencemen Nikita Nesterov and Nathan Beaulieu had a torrid time of it, particularly in the second period as the Rangers poured forward to thwart any incipient Habs’ comeback.
It shouldn’t be a surprise if Brandon Davidson drafts in for Nesterov.
But if the Habs are to shed the can’t-score label any time soon, they’ll need to do more than tinker with the third defensive pairing.