There is, inevitably, a website dedicated to the proposition that Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien should be fired immediately, if not sooner.
It’s possible to make a case both for and against, but the Habs’ 2-1 loss to the rejuvenated Winnipeg Jets on Super Bowl Sunday will only amplify the howls from the can-him-forthwith crowd.
Since sending Claude Noël his termination notice, the Jets are 8-2 under interim coach Paul Maurice – not a huge sample, but it’s a small wonder owners league-wide aren’t reaching for the ejector-seat button.
Talk to the Winnipeg players about the biggest difference between then and now, and they’ll tell you something like this: “The players are starting to play; it’s not every other night, it’s every night.”
Those words were uttered by goaltender Al Montoya, who made a bushel-ful of key saves and also got tangled up with Habs forward Brendan Gallagher in the final minute, punching the pint-sized Montreal player a few times (Gallagher was also rough-housed by a pair of Winnipeg defencemen, meanwhile, teammate P.K. Subban played a solo game of keep-away in the neutral zone).
The incident was the main talking point after the game – referee Wes McAuley was standing a few feet away but did nothing – Gallagher was too steamed to speak about the incident, leaving it to teammate Josh Gorges to address to media.
“It was my call for [Gallagher] not to come out … he’s heated, I don’t think anything that he says is going to change what happened. So this is what we do, we stick up for each other,” Gorges said, musing about whether the refs might hold “a grudge, or something” against his young teammate.
These are not great times in Habsville, where a pair of morale-boosting wins last week were followed up by back-to-back losses on the weekend.
The team has lost more games than it has won since Dec. 1 – 13-11-3 – and their hold on a safe-seeming playoff spot is growing more tenuous.
But beware the simple solution to complex problems.
A coach firing can provide a short, sharp shock to a dressing room, but winning comes down to players doing their jobs; both of the teams that took the ice Sunday have flaws, but at the moment the Jets are fulfilling the mandate, while the Habs are not.
At least not consistently, but there’s little choice other than to focus on sunnier days ahead.
“Slumps happen – we’ve just got to stick together,” said rookie defenceman Nathan Beaulieu, whose play is one of the few Habs’ bright spots. “We’re not playing badly at all, we’re following our game plan, we’re playing hard. We’ve just got to keep plugging away.”
Good teams don’t usually worry about luck, scuffling teams do; Therrien bemoaned his team’s lack of good fortune after the game, saying “we deserved a better fate.”
That’s certainly a debate he could win when you couple the number of goal posts hit by Habs shooters (two) with a pair of uncharacteristic mistakes by Team Canada goalie Carey Price – he couldn’t squeeze Tobias Entrom’s wraparound at 9:13 of the second and his errant puck-handling led to Robert Frolik’s winner at 1:04 of the third.
“It’s on me,” Price said.
Brian Gionta briefly tied the game with a top-corner snipe in the second, but Price’s flubs notwithstanding – in Saturday’s loss to Tampa the guilty party was Subban, who directed a puck into his own net – the Habs simply aren’t offering the kind of goal support a netminder needs to win.
Price’s teammates have scored only 10 goals in his past seven starts, during which he has gone 1-5-1, and allowed 34 or more shots against him in five straight games.
Over all, the Habs are 5-7-2 in their past 14 games, and are 4-for-44 on the power-play over that span (although in fairness the power-play looked dangerous against Winnipeg).
So they’re playing leaky defence and they’re not scoring much at even-strength or on the power-play. Other than that, everything’s fine.
The contrast with the Jets, who have found a new level of assurance in their game in general and their defensive zone in particular, is striking.
Maurice, who strolled into the Jets’ room with the credibility that comes with having coached more than 1,000 NHL games (it’s something players notice), has paid particular attention to establishing a new comfort level when his charges are defending.
“We do some … fun things with the puck at strange times, but that’s part of the learning progression for us, and more than that it’s part of confidence,” he said after the game.
Though the Canadiens mounted a push midway through the first period and carried the play through the second, Maurice said “in the third period, when they were in our end, we were comfortable.”
In his view, the Jets have made “big gains in small areas,” and when Maurice was asked whether his 8-2 start is how he imagined his first 10-game stretch in charge, he replied: “It sounds funny to say, but [the record] is almost insignificant to what we want to do around here.”
There’s something Therrien surely wishes he could say.