It was about 80 minutes before the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs hit the ice at Scotiabank Arena that Mike Sullivan had this to say about his Pittsburgh Penguins losing 3-2 in overtime to the Philadelphia Flyers:
“I thought it was a sloppy game, especially in the first couple of periods,” the coach started. “We had opportunities to make plays, to beat the pressure, and we hit a skate or we hit a stick or things of that nature. And I just think those are the subtleties that I’m talking about that these guys will get better with the game action that they get themselves in. It’s hard to simulate that stuff in a practice environment, so…it’s the one opportunity that we had to try to assess where we’re at, look at some of the areas where we think we were good and find areas where we know we can improve and get better. And we’ll go to work on those starting tomorrow.”
It’s the same challenge for the Flyers, Canadiens, and even for the Maple Leafs, who skated away with a 4-2 win — but not with some sense of perfection.
What would you expect after a near five-month layoff between games, and under circumstances that were anything but customary?
In some respects, it was like every other exhibition game we’ve ever watched — rife with the type of mistakes typically made after an extensive pause and with nothing really on the line.
But with no family in attendance, no fans in the seats and no previous experience to draw on to prepare for this particular and peculiar situation, this was also like no other exhibition game we’ve ever seen.
You want to talk about the unprecedented. How about the Canadiens’ dressing in Toronto’s room and skating out onto the ice as the home team?
Carey Price took a wrong turn leading them down the tunnel on the way there.
There were nerves, there was rust and there was “a big adaptation” in order, as Canadiens centre Phillip Danault put it.
So if you found yourself screaming at the television when Ben Chiarot made an ill-advised pinch at the end of the first shift of the game — a play that ended with Toronto’s Ilya Mikheyev scoring a tap-in off a sweet John Tavares feed — maybe you just needed to take a breath.
What was this if not a reminder that there’s much work to be done before Claude Julien’s Canadiens and Sullivan’s Penguins lock horns in Game 1 of their Stanley Cup qualifier series Saturday?
We’re thinking Montreal might want to focus on its power play.
Tuesday’s game presented the Canadiens with an opportunity to rid themselves of the bitter taste of 18 consecutive whiffs on the power play prior to the NHL’s pause, and they essentially swished a jar of pickle juice instead of using Listerine to wash it out. This team, which allowed five short-handed goals in 71 games this season, got scored on twice and failed miserably to generate any positive momentum on six attempts.
“It’s just reps and reps and repetition,” said unit-one member Brendan Gallagher, who registered nine of Montreal’s 30 shots and two of their six on the power play. “You know the penalty kill in the league today is so, so good. You have to do things quick, you don’t really have time to think. You have to understand where the play’s going to be and you have to do it right away.”
“It,” would be breaking out of the defensive zone in some cohesive manner, or breaking into the offensive zone in control of the puck, or outnumbering the opposition in battles for loose pucks.
There’s a sense of urgency you need in order to execute in those situations and the Canadiens didn’t have “it.”
If that was true of Montreal’s power play, it also held in other aspects of their game.
“I think when we were effective,” said Julien, “we were aggressive.”
“We played a little passive a little too much tonight and gave a good team with a lot of skill and a lot of speed some time to make plays,” he added.
Alex Kerfoot and Morgan Rielly finished the short-handed ones for the Leafs, and Kerfoot and Mikheyev came through at even strength for the other goals.
Montreal’s Tomas Tatar and Paul Byron may have scored the goals for their side, but they had their struggles as much anyone else in a red sweater did.
“You could definitely see some rust in our team because there’s not a tonne of players there that hit the high notes tonight,” said Julien. “But hopefully (it was) enough of a game today to get the rust out and make sure that we’re ready to go here come Saturday.”
The Canadiens will practise three more times before we get there, and so will the Penguins.
Guess what? Those guys in black in gold whiffed on their three power plays against Philadelphia, and a group comprised of superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist and Justin Schultz was their second-most effective unit.
“For me, the solutions are lying in simplifying the game,” said Sullivan. “I don’t think we moved the puck as quickly as we needed to and I don’t think we were shooting the puck when we had opportunities to put the puck in the net.
“So, we will go back to work with it and we’ll get it moving in the right direction.”
Sullivan didn’t seem particularly concerned, and neither did Julien as he left his media availability.
And that’s because these were the first hockey games we’ve seen in 138 days, and you couldn’t even label them dress rehearsals.
We’re going from exhibition straight to do-or-die matchups. Expect we’ll go from sloppy to steady in a real hurry here, too.