There are many variables that go into deciding who wins and who loses a hockey game. They include talent, execution, determination and team work. Tonight another variable affected the outcome: coach's prerogative. Montreal coach Jacques Martin decided it was more important to send messages to his players rather than win the game.
Despite being two goals down entering the third, Habs sniper Andrei Kostitsyn sat on the bench and remained there for the entire period. Well, not the entire period. Andrei was given one five-second shift in the third.
In total, Kosititsyn had just over seven minutes of icetime, more than two minutes less than Georges Laraque.
It was also Laraque who had two shifts in the last five minutes (his longest shifts of the game) when the Canadiens were trailing by a goal. A curious coaching strategy, to say the least.
But, no decision was more odd than Martin's choice for defenseman with 30 seconds to play. Carey Price was on the bench and the Canadiens had six attackers on the ice looking for the equalizer. The forwards were Gionta, Gomez, Cammalleri and Plekanec. Spacek manned one point. Martin decided to fill the left point spot with Hal Gill.
Martin could have chosen to leave Yannick Weber on the ice. Weber had only been out for a 30 second shift. Josh Gorges was also an option. Gorges had been catching his breath on the bench for over a minute. Martin could even have employed a forward. Maybe even a forward with a big shot at the point like Kostitsyn. But Martin had already decided that he couldn't use Kostitsyn. The coach wasn't quite finished teaching him a lesson.
After the game Martin said, "Where we lost the game was mistakes. Two mistakes cost us two goals. It's disappointing because a win here tonight would have made the trip a lot better."
It would seem that the coach was fixated on those mistakes and lost his perspective for the rest of the game.
One of the mistakes Martin was referring to most certainly occurred on the Oilers third goal. Kostitsyn was guilty of a bad pass in his own zone. But he wasn't alone in committing an error. Paul Mara gave up the puck on the boards. Mike Cammalleri's stick check was ineffective. Josh Gorges was caught standing still as Patrick O'Sullivan scored on a snap shot. It was poor defensive zone coverage by four of the five Canadiens on the ice.
On Edmonton's second goal, Scott Gomez lost the draw in his own end and Brian Gionta didn't get out to cover the point. J.F. Jacques scored on a deflection from a point shot. Was this the other mistake that was concerning coach Martin?
The mistake more likely occurred on the the Oiler's first goal. It was scored as Sam Gagner connected on a long pass to Mike Comrie who split the defense. Was Martin blaming the defense? It seems that teams have figured out that a Jacques Martin coached team doesn't defend the neutral zone. It has been a problem for the forwards (and Martin) all season.
Special teams have also been a problem for the Canadiens. The Canadiens came into the night ranked 29th while shorthanded. While the penalty killers didn't allow a goal on three Oiler chances tonight, the unit was rather passive. Edmonton shooters were not challenged resulting in several shots ringing off the post.
Martin saw it differently. He thought that the penalty killing was strong and limited chances against.
The Canadiens power play is just not getting enough opportunities. Habs players just aren't working hard enough to draw penalties. When they do get a chance Martin's carousel of players means that the unit has not had a chance to gel.
One bright spot was the play of Weber on the Canadiens first power play opportunity. He looked poised at the point. He must work harder to find the angle to get his shots through to the net.
Max Pacioretty had a much better game. He was effective at both ends of the ice and earned some power play time. Max was one of the Habs who drew a penalty.
Another positive for the team was that they did not fold when the Oilers took a 3-0 lead. They outshot Edmonton by a wide margin and dominated at the faceoff dot. Goal scorers for the Canadiens were Gionta and Roman Hamrlik.
Unfortunately, Guillaume Latendresse continues to disappoint. Gui had several chances but could not finish. And when will Latendresse learn that he is much too slow to score on the wraparound?
Coach Martin obviously has a vision in mind. But by inconsistently punishing some players and not others, he is at risk of alienating his players. He is also planting the seeds of locker room divisions.
A winless tour of Western Canada (that now spans six years) leaves the Canadiens with a record of 2-3. Without two overtime wins, it could be 0-5. The Habs return home to prepare for their home opener Thursday versus Colorado.
What's on the things-to-do list? The Canadiens clearly need a better strategy to clear and break out of their own zone. They also must pay more attention to defending the neutral zone. Finally, the Habs need a lot of work on special teams.
So coach Martin has a full plate when he returns to Montreal. Let's hope that he has more than a bag skate in his arsenal to help the Habs get ready for Thursday night.
Pregame expected lineup:
Gomez, Gionta, Cammalleri
Plekanec, Pacioretty, Andrei Kostitsyn
Lapierre, Latendresse, Moen
Chipchura, D'Agostini, Laraque
Carey Price starts in goal for the Canadiens, Nikolai Khabibulin for the Oilers
scratches: Stewart, Markov (ankle, four months), Metropolit (ribs, day-to-day), O'Byrne (knee, eight weeks)
Rocket's three stars
1. Nikolai Khabibulin
2. Brian Gionta
3. JF Jacques
(photo credit: AP)