In this week’s Montreal Canadiens news and rumors, we have a health update on Claude Julien after he was rushed to hospital with chest pains and how Kirk Muller is stepping into his new role as acting head coach in the absence of Julien. Jesperi Kotkaniemi has taken his game to a new level in the postseason and he has the numbers to prove it.
Plus, good friends Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin have been happily reunited on the same line by Muller. Carey Price and Shea Weber, who both celebrated birthdays in the bubble, are ageing like fine wine.
Claude Julien is Resting at Home
Claude Julien was rushed to hospital with chest pains on Wednesday night following the Canadiens’ Game 1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. General Manager Marc Bergevin announced that Julien would miss the remainder of the series and that Kirk Muller would act as head coach in his absence. On Friday morning before Game 2, the team revealed that Julien was heading home to rest following the stenting of a coronary artery.
The Habs rallied together and put forth an inspired performance that would have made Julien proud en route to a 5-0 romp of the Flyers to even the series at 1-1. Considering the circumstances and the result, it was one of their best games in years.
“We for sure wanted to win for both [Julien and Muller],” Jonathan Drouin said. “When you look at the energy we started the game with on the bench and on the ice, it was incredible. It was a start that led to the first two goals and we just built on it. The way we were skating, the way we were on the puck, it was impressive. It was one of our best games.”
Kirk Muller is the Right Man for the Job
Friday’s win was Muller’s first postseason victory as an NHL head coach. In his three years as coach of the Carolina Hurricanes from 2011-2014, the team failed to make the playoffs.
Still, Muller’s experience and history in the league as a player is what gives confidence to his players. He spent 19 seasons in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1993.
“It is rare to see a coach who uses his knowledge as a former player as a communication tool as well as Muller does, allowing him to create a bond with his players by using a tone that reaches them,” (from ‘Why Kirk Muller is the perfect interim coach for the Canadiens at this moment’, The AthleticNHL – 08/15/20).
Muller has also played a big role in the development of Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki, both of whom are starring in these playoffs for the Habs. He has worked closely with both, showing them the ropes and teaching them what it takes to be successful pro.
On paper, the Flyers are better than the Canadiens, but Muller can convince his team otherwise and his passion will get the most out of them. He also knows a thing or two about winning a Stanley Cup as the underdog. That’s why he’s the perfect candidate to replace Julien at this moment, and in this situation.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi has Entered the Chat
It seems there’s a new statistic coming out daily that shows just how good Kotkaniemi has been in the postseason. It’s as if the Canadiens acquired a new player during the COVID-19 pause, one that gives them depth down the middle that they haven’t had in forever.
His four goals put him tied for fourth-most playoff goals before the age of 21 in Canadiens’ history. He is also 10th in the NHL among all forwards in terms of shot control. Not to mention that he’s second behind Selke Trophy finalist Ryan O’Reilly for the player who is on the ice for fewer expected goals against per 60 at 5-on-5.
Watching Kotkaniemi and Suzuki as a 1-2 punch at centre, anchored by Phillip Danault centring the third line in a defensive role, has to be a treat for Habs’ management and the fan base. It sure has been a long time coming.
Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin are Finally Reunited
Muller shuffled his forward lines in Game 2 which resulted in Max Domi being moved up from the fourth line to be reunited with his good friend Jonathan Drouin and Kotkaniemi on the second line. The results were conclusive as the trio combined for six points in the contest, including Domi’s first three assists of his playoff career.
Domi and Drouin enjoyed success playing together earlier this year, but Julien eventually split them up. Muller hoped the pair could rekindle their chemistry to give the Habs more offensive punch and get a struggling Domi going. The plan worked and Montreal’s two most dynamic forwards are happy to be reunited.
“Obviously, it’s no secret Jo and I are very close off the ice, spend a lot of time away from the rink together and we love playing together. So, it was a lot of fun to get out there with him tonight,” (from ‘A happy reunion for Canadiens’ Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin’, Montreal Gazette – 08/16/20).
The Canadiens need Domi and Drouin to produce if they hope to beat the Flyers and continue their surprising playoff run and it looks like putting them on the ice together is the most effective way to accomplish that.
Carey Price and Shea Weber are Leading the Way
Carey Price and Shea Weber are the leaders of this Habs team and they’re playing like it this postseason. Both celebrated a birthday this week and they are ageing like fine wine.
Price has been stellar in net, putting up a .953 save percentage, a 1.40 goals-against average and two shutouts in seven games. The 33-year-old has inspired confidence in his team and showing the same form that won him the Hart Trophy in 2014-15 as league MVP.
For his part, Weber has been the backbone on defense. He and partner Ben Chiarot have been tough to play against and have managed to neutralize their opponents’ top offensive threats. Weber leads the team in scoring with three goals and five points so far in addition to maintaining a plus-6 rating.
“This is something he’s done his whole career. We’re talking 14 or 15 years of being one of the best defensemen in the NHL. He’s a guy who does everything the right way every single day. That’s why he’s our captain and that’s why he’s still one of the best defensemen in the game even at his age. He takes care of himself and does all the right things and you see that on the ice. He’s so effective for us,” Chiarot said of Weber.
What’s Next for the Habs
Price’s Game 2 shutout was matched by Carter Hart in Game 3 on Sunday night as he made 23 saves in a 1-0 win for the Flyers to take a 2-1 series lead.
The Canadiens were a bit flat after finishing their last contest on such a high. They will need to find their legs and use their speed to push the pace as they did in Game 2 if they hope to even the series on Tuesday.
Regardless of this latest loss, there have been many positives to build on through seven games of postseason hockey for an improving Habs team.