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Canadiens, coach Julien need to find solutions as offence dries up – Sportsnet.ca

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MONTREAL — It’s a difficult balance to achieve — especially when you start the season without a regulation loss in your first seven games and maintain your rhythm over the next three before falling off-pace for four — but as a coach, you have to know when to stick with it and when to make changes.

It’s fair to say Claude Julien is in the middle seat right now, and finding that balance will only be more challenging if things keep sliding.

Julien’s Montreal Canadiens have lost three of four games — including Thursday’s 3-0 shutout to Mike Smith and the Edmonton Oilers — and the scoring has dried up.

The Canadiens, who opened with 44 goals in their first 10 games, have scored just six in their last four. The opposition has tightened up — the Ottawa Senators looked like Team Germany, parking it on their half of the ice through two games and not allowing the Canadiens to gain any traction in transition before the Toronto Maple Leafs put a blanket on Montreal’s offence in Wednesday’s 3-1 win.

And even if the flow was moving in both directions of Thursday’s game, which was delayed an hour for the completion of test results after Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi was added to the NHL’s COVID-19 Protocol list, the Canadiens weren’t able to generate more than the one odd-man rush they had early in the first period — a breakaway for Nick Suzuki.

Teams have adjusted to Montreal’s devastating counter-attack and clamped down in the scoring areas, and now it’s the Canadiens’ turn to make their own adjustments.

It’s not like Julien sat on his hands over the last 48 hours. He pulled assistant captain Paul Byron out of the lineup for Wednesday’s game and put him back in Thursday. Corey Perry went from the third line Saturday, to the fourth line Wednesday and to the taxi squad Thursday. Tomas Tatar and Tyler Toffoli switched places on lines two and three against the Oilers, and Jake Allen took Carey Price’s place in front of the net.

But the Canadiens tried hard and lost, the frustration was oozing out of them on the ice — and off of it in their post-game media availability — and it left us wondering if Julien needs to tweak the offensive strategy. Or at least one part of it in particular.

The Canadiens tend to rely on funnelling the puck back to the point a lot in the offensive zone. It’s at least part of the reason they came into the game with the 20th-most goals per game off the cycle at 5-on-5. Considering they lead the league in goals, it’s a concerning number — especially when teams aren’t allowing them to generate as much in transition and off the rush, where they still rank first in goals per game.

That pattern — which we know of thanks to the fine folks at Sportlogiq, who provided the above data — was apparent in Thursday’s game as well, with Montreal’s defence accounting for 40 per cent of the shot attempts in all situations and 16 of 34 shots at even strength.

Prior to the game, Phillip Danault was asked about what the Canadiens could do to be less predictable in this regard, and he said, “I think definitely we should work a little more with us as forwards.”

“Cycle and those little things can help us,” Danault added. “It could be a little different, too — teams are doing video every day, so we’ve got to adjust sometimes on those little things. Those little things can bring you far and win some games, too. So, maybe a little more between the forwards in the O-zone.”

When we asked Julien about it after the loss, he said it came down to the lack of execution of the strategy in place, rather than the strategy itself.

“This (strategy) has been going on since the playoff bubble, which I thought served us well,” Julien said. “It served us well at the beginning of the year, too.”

In fairness to Julien, that’s true to an extent. Montreal’s defence combined for 16 points in 10 games in the August playoffs, and they’ve combined for 34 points in 14 games this season. Those things wouldn’t have happened if this particular strategy wasn’t working to some degree.

We’d even agree with Julien’s explanation of why this strategy works in general, and why it’s not working now.

“When teams swarm and you have no room down low, you want to move it up high,” he said. “But we need to get on the inside, we need guys going to the net, and that’s what’s not happening right now. When you do move it up, sometimes it does open up some space for you to put it back down and use those little plays.

“So I don’t think it’s the system itself, it’s more us not executing properly. And I think when you see our execution come back, those things won’t be in question.”

But how long can he afford to wait to tweak it a bit, to throw a curveball at the opposition on this until the confidence to execute it properly returns?

It’s a shortened season, every point in the early part of it is that much more precious, and a losing spell can put so much in doubt.

We’re not suggesting everything needs to be undone because of a bad stretch, which prompted Julien to say several times, both before and after Thursday’s game, that the Canadiens don’t have their “A-game.”

Both Byron and Brendan Gallagher were asked after the loss if the coach was too reliant on all four lines and both of them practically said the same thing verbatim — a thing we agree with.

“The strength of our team is having four lines that are capable of playing good hockey for our team,” said Byron.

The Canadiens played superstars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on Wednesday and Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on Thursday, and with respect to Suzuki, Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson, they aren’t of that ilk. Even if they’ve produced at nearly a point-per-game rate so far.

This team’s superpowers are its depth and its balanced. If Julien deviates from that just to put a few more goals in, a lot of other areas slip, so we don’t see a reason for him to do that.

And the players have to do their part, too.

“Right now things aren’t going that well offensively, but I think we need to do a better job of going to the net,” Byron said. “Not really playing as much on the outside, find ways to get in front and make life difficult for their goalie. We had a lot of shots, a lot of outside shots, one-and-dones. I think (Smith) saw a lot of the puck tonight and it just makes it easy for him. You’re not always going to score 3-on-2 breakaway goals all the time. Sometimes you’ve got to go to the paint, you gotta get dirty goals, stuff that guys like Corey (Perry) and Gally made a living doing for years. It’s just on everybody to go and do that and embrace that mentality. Put the work boots on and go to the hard areas to score. It’s a big part of our game I think we can improve on.”

The coaches can help the players do it. Julien and his associates have to consider attacking this issue with some new methods before the team slips further into the offensive abyss.

Gallagher’s not sweating it.

“There’s no concern,” he said.

But Gallagher’s not the one holding the clipboard on the bench, and finding that balance of sticking to your plan and adjusting it is always hardest to do when things aren’t going the way you want them to.

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Auston Matthews won't face Oilers, Alex Galchenyuk demoted – Toronto Sun

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For the second time this season, the Maple Leafs will face Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers without their own top gun, Auston Matthews.

Not good news when Saturday is the first of three games with first place in the North Division at stake. But hold off that panic button, Matthews’ nagging wrist injury is not expected to sideline him more than a game or two and Toronto already beat the Oilers 4-2 without him on the road.

And when Matthews came back last time, he went on that electrifying 16-game points streak/goal rush that helped propel the Leafs to first.

Coach Sheldon Keefe didn’t wait to make a game-time decision, pulling Matthews Saturday morning, while confirming that three other returning injured players are ready. Goalie Jack Campbell, defenceman Jake Muzzin and winger Joe Thornton are a go, with John Tavares going to Matthews’ spot on the first line between Thornton and Mitch Marner.

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The Leafs take on an Edmonton team, who are even hotter than they’ve been of late, jumping Montreal for second place and possibly passing Toronto if they sweep this series in regulation. McDavid and Draisaitl have a combined 74 points, but a couple of Leafs cautioned against overlooking the rest of the Edmonton roster.

“They have a deeper lineup than they get credit for,” defenceman Justin Holl said. “They’ve been rolling lately and everyone on the ice has been dangerous. Even from the back end, Ethan Bear has been hot. It will be a five-man unit for us and we can’t take shifts off against anyone.”

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

Holl said the Leafs are well aware their lead in the North isn’t safe and a higher seeding remains a vital team objective after late season letdowns ultimately hurt the team in unfavourable playoff match-ups.

“We’re up by four points, we have a game in hand, but it’s a super-important series and we have to get off to a good start tonight.”

Also Saturday morning, the Leafs swapped a couple of Taxi Squaders with the Marlies, but one of the promoted players was not rookie winger Nick Robertson. Veteran forward Kenny Agostino and defenceman Timothy Liljegren stayed in Alberta after the farm team wrapped up a series in Calgary, while Alex Galchenyuk and defenceman Martin Marincin remained in Toronto and will possibly play in the Marlies home opener Monday against the Manitoba Moose.

Galchenyuk, whose 2012 first-round draft star has fallen considerably the past couple of years, went unclaimed while on waivers before the trade with Carolina and has never been in the AHL.

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“Part of our plan is just to get Galchenyuk playing and that would’ve been sooner if the Marlies hadn’t been out West,” Keefe said. “It’s an environment where he can look to find his game, get comfortable in our surroundings and in our systems. He can find his confidence and not be so concerned about his place in the lineup or making mistakes.”

Robertson was among a few Marlies on a near point-a-game pace through eight games, though Keefe would only say the club wanted a closer look at defenceman Liljegren, whom the coach said is not off to a great start, but could do better as a Leaf extra now that he’s played some games.

Campbell has not been in net for a month since a lower body injury, while No. 1 Frederik Andersen is on the trip, but not yet healed from his own lower body injury. As usual, Campbell has oozed positivity around the room the past few days.

“He’s amazing, a great guy on the ice and off,” Holl said. “I was looking over his shoulder on the plane yesterday and he was watching some film. I was laughing, because on every clip he makes a save, he immediately taps someone closest to him. It could be me and I didn’t even do anything on the play, but he gives you a shin tap. It’s fun to play in front of a guy like that.”

lhornby@postmedia.com

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Line changes spark Flames’ spirited offensive effort against Senators – Sportsnet.ca

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Running out of ideas, line combinations and motivators, the Calgary Flames tore a page out of an old playbook to get back on track Saturday afternoon.

Coach Geoff Ward dusted off the lines he used last year to help the team snap a lengthy offensive slump with a 6-3 win over the Ottawa Senators.

How long the trios – or the success – will last is anyone’s guess for a team leading the league in line changes and inconsistency.

But for one day the fan fury and finger-pointing in Calgary will subside thanks to a spirited effort that addressed a long list of issues facing the Flames of late, topped by their inability to score.

Ward had reunited Elias Lindholm with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan late in Thursday’s 6-1 loss to the Senators, while also putting Mikael Backlund’s 3M Line back together with Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane.

After scoring just eight goals in their last six games, the Flames saw five of their top-six forwards find the net, including Backlund who scored for the first time in 10 outings as part of a three-point outing.

“I think our first three lines are the same as last year’s bubble and there is good chemistry in there with all those lines,” said Mangiapane, whose eighth goal of the month was the first shorthanded tally of his career and the team’s season.

“We were rolling today and you saw it. I know for our line we’re comfortable talking to each other and I think that’s how it should be. We have to just continue building chemistry with those four lines.”

The only top-sixer not to score was Gaudreau, who had two assists, as the top two lines combined for 11 points in a game the visitors led 2-0 less than five minutes in.

Struggling most of the year with their starts, the Flames finished the opening period with a season-high 20 shots on goal and a 3-1 lead they did well to protect the rest of the way.

The solid good start came following a warmup in which captain Mark Giordano could be seen loudly urging on a bunch that has struggled to stay even-keeled through the early parts of a season in which the Flames have been one of the league’s most schizophrenic outfits.

The offensive outburst caps an 11-game run in which the Flames hadn’t scored more than four goals, ranking them 24th in the league in goals per game.

Thus, Ward went old school with the lines.

“We just felt they brought some energy to the game when we put them back together in the last game, so we felt it might give us the start we were looking for today and it certainly did,” said Ward, whose club picked up its second regulation win in its last nine games.

“We talked about it earlier in the season. We’re confident with those lines – we know they work. We feel good with them. We wanted to try and explore something else to see if there’s potentially a better lineup. But we know that’s a good fit, there’s chemistry between those guys having played together for a long period of time. Certainly, they showed it today. Sometimes a little bit of comfort and some old faces is all you need to get things going the other way.”

The timing was right, as line matching isn’t an issue against the league’s youngest squad.

One wonders if this is a long-term solution given the move to put Lindholm on a separate line was made to take pressure off Monahan’s line when the intensity picks up in the playoffs.

These Flames need to get there first.

They took a step in that direction by moving into a fourth-place tie with Montreal with the win.

Aided by the familiarity they built on all last season and through the playoffs, the top two lines were complemented by a third unit centered by Sam Bennett and flanked by Milan Lucic and Dillon Dube.

It was the Flames’ best line in the postseason, and while they didn’t score Saturday Bennett was 71% in the faceoff circle and Lucic added jam by accepting – and promptly winning – a fight with Austin Watson right after the Flames went up 2-0.

The Flames energy got an early boost when Juuso Valimaki celebrated like a schoolboy after opening the scoring with his first of the year. It was only the second of his career, with his only other coming Oct. 17, 2018.

“Honestly, that’s how we’ve got to start every game,” said the young defenceman.

“We talked about it a lot and it has kind of stayed in the talking stage. We haven’t really been able to do it. So to be able to do it will probably give us confidence that we can do it.”

David Rittich returned to form, making 31 saves in his fourth start in five-and-a-half days while Jacob Markstrom has been on injured reserve with an upper-body injury. Markstrom is eligible to return to the lineup Sunday, if healthy, potentially opening up options for Monday’s third of four-straight meetings with the Senators.

After being shut out in their initial meeting Thursday, both Tkachuk brothers scored in this one, with Matthew adding an assist. Brady’s goal, as well as those scored by Colin White and Drake Batherson, came on the power play.

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Maple Leafs’ Tavares, Marner reunite on top line with Matthews out vs. Oilers – Sportsnet.ca

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The showdown between the hockey’s most dangerous goal-scorer and its most prolific point-getter has been put on hold until Monday, at the earliest.

Auston Matthews, who leads the NHL with 18 goals, will be sidelined with a nagging wrist injury Saturday in Edmonton as the Toronto Maple Leafs visit Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.

Matthews aggravated his wrist during Wednesday’s overtime victory over the Calgary Flames when he crashed hands-first into the boards. Matthews completed the game, gathering a pair of assists, but coach Sheldon Keefe shielded his top centre from taking faceoffs.

Listed as day-to-day, Matthews missed the team’s full practice Friday and skated with the reserves Saturday morning at Rogers Arena:

“He’s played through some stuff here all year long, and he’s been a complete stud,” Joe Thornton said.

Toronto (15-4-2) has already missed 55 man-games due to injuries this season, and this will mark Matthews’ second absence against the red-hot Oilers, who carry a five-game win streak into the night.

The Leafs will welcome back a trio of healthy players to their lineup, however.

Shutdown defenceman Jake Muzzin (fractured face bone) will don a full cage, and veteran Joe Thornton (lower body) jumps back into the top six.

Beloved backup goalie Jack Campbell (2-0-0) gets his first start since suffering a leg injury on Jan. 24.

“He’s amazing. He was watching some tape [on the plane], and I was laughing because on every clip he makes the save and he tapped someone that’s closest to him,” Justin Holl said, with a smile. “Like, it doesn’t even matter. It could be me, and I didn’t even do anything on the play.”

Matthews’ injury paves the way for a John Tavares–Mitch Marner reunion on the front line.

“We’ve already played a game this season without Auston against the Oilers. Putting John and Mitch together, they’ve got a long history of playing together, and having Joe available today will give our whole group a boost,” coach Sheldon Keefe said.

Tavares enjoyed his most productive season, 2018-19, with Marner on his wing, and the elite playmaker will try to help the captain out of an offensive funk that has seen Tavares score one goal in his past 10 outings.

Thornton skated alongside that duo Friday, staying on the ice to take extra reps with Tavares.

“He just wants the puck all the time, and I think that’s a good sign,” Thornton said of his fellow No. 1 draft pick.

“He always wants to distribute and handle the puck, and he’s not afraid of the puck coming to him so I like that. And, off the ice, a real good guy, an easy guy to talk to. And when he opens up, he’s a surprising guy. It’s nice.”

The Maple Leafs assigned Kenny Agostino and Timothy Liljegren to their taxi squad for this five-game western road trip, while newly acquired forward Alex Galchenyuk and defenceman Martin Marincin have been loaned to the AHL Marlies.

Liljegren, 21, has impressed early this season, putting up six points through eight games with the Marlies.

“Regardless of his start,” coach Sheldon Keefe notes, “he’s someone we’ve wanted to get some games.”

Saturday’s projected lines:

Thornton-Tavares-Marner
Barabanov-Kerfoot-Nylander
Hyman-Engvall-Mikheyev
Petan-Boyd-Spezza

Rielly-Brodie
Muzzin-Holl
Dermott-Bogosian

Campbell
Hutchinson

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