Red Wings-Canadiens set-up: Detroit prepares for back-to-back games vs. winless, desperate Habs, Hawks

The 2-1-and-1 Detroit Red Wings face a unique situation in facing the 0-and-5 Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night (7 PM EDT on Bally Sports Detroit/City TV/TVA Sports/ESPN+/97.1 FM), kicking off a stretch of back-to-back games against winless teams (the Red Wings also battle the 0-4-and-1 Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday at 7 PM EDT).

Montreal is 0-and-5 for the first time since 1995, per the Detroit News’s Steve Kornacki, and Sportsnet’s Eric Engels reported that no Stanley Cup Finalist has ever gone 0-and-6 to start their season.

The Red Wings, of course, will be without Tyler Bertuzzi due to his vaccination status, and are coming off a 3-0 loss to the Calgary Flames on Thursday; Montreal most recently lost a 4-1 decision to Jesperi Kotkaniemi and the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday, and Sportsnet’s Justin Bourne reminds us that the Canadiens are without Carey Price and Shea Weber, among others.

Put bluntly, the Montreal press corps and Canadiens partisans are going crazy in both English and French due to the Canadiens’ struggles, and things aren’t much cheerier in Chicago, so the young Red Wings face extraordinary challenges in attempting to kick two nemeses while they’re down–and desperate.

Detroit chose to cancel practice on Friday; Montreal did practice on Friday, but the Canadiens did practice, and they spoke with the media afterward. The Montreal Gazette’s Stu Cowan will lead our game preview off, however, with a “state of the franchise”

With each loss the reality is sinking in more that the Canadiens are not a very good hockey team.

This looks like a shell of the team that went to the Stanley Cup final less than four months ago.

The loss of No. 1 goalie Carey Price, captain Shea Weber, No. 1 centre Phillip Danault, veteran leader Corey Perry and, yes, Jesperi Kotkaniemi is really being felt. Add in Joel Edmundson — who missed all of training camp with an undisclosed injury and is with his family as his father battles cancer — and it’s not a total shock the Canadiens are 0-5, their worst start since 1995-96.

Things aren’t going to get easier with the Detroit Red Wings, who are off to a 2-1-1 start, at the Bell Centre Saturday (7 p.m., CITY, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM). After that, the Canadiens head out on a West Coast road trip — which is never easy — with games in Seattle, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim.

The Canadiens have been outscored 19-4 and are two losses away from matching their worst start in history, when they went 0-7 in 1938-39.

Nothing is working at this point for the Canadiens, who are 1-for-19 on the power play and have given up eight goals on 18 power-play opportunities by the opposition.

All of the above items noted, the Canadiens remain defiant regarding their ability to bounce back from a disastrous start, as they told the Montreal Gazette’s Stu Cowan:

“We’re better than 0-5,” Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme said after practice Friday at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard. “That’s certain.”

Not only are the Canadiens 0-5, they have also been outscored 19-4, are 1-for-19 on the power play and have allowed eight power-play goals on 18 opportunities by the opposition.

“It’s a challenge,” Ducharme said. “But how do you respond to the challenge? So far we’re still maybe figuring that out. We don’t have the results that we want. But I see signs … I see good things coming up and we’ll get out of that and it’s going to make us stronger and that’s it.

“Anyone can bury us right now and we don’t care,” the coach added. “Seriously, we don’t care. We’re going to take care of this and we’re going to finish where we deserve to finish. Every night we have 20 guys in the lineup, so we have to find a way as a group. And maybe some guys need to, or a learning or are processing that we need to bring a little bit more in different aspects — in leadership or the way we play, whatever. But we’ll get through and we’ll do it the right way.”

Current starting goaltender Jake Allen, who’s no slouch, agreed with his coach:

Canadiens goalie Jake Allen was with the St. Louis Blues in 2018-19 when they won the Stanley Cup after having the worst record in the NHL after 37 games (15-18-4). Allen, as much as anyone, understands that teams can bounce back from bad starts.

“I think we’ve all probably been on teams where we’ve struggled for four, five, six games in a row,” Allen said. “It doesn’t matter when it is in the season, you have to find ways to right the ship. In St. Louis it was more of just a collective buy-in. Everyone just collectively bought in to what we’re trying to achieve and what we’re trying to accomplish and what was ahead of us. Honestly, just face the challenges head on.

“We’re in a little bit of a hole here,” the goalie added. “We need to face these challenges head on and really just take them for what they are and go at them. We’ve all been on different teams — I was there in St. Louis, I’ve been there a couple of times before — when you have little struggles and slumps, but we got to claw our way out of this. I thought last night (a 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes) we worked, our game was a step in the right direction. The win wasn’t there, but I thought it was the hardest game we’ve played and hopefully bring that back tomorrow.

“We all know we’re good hockey players in here,” Allen continued. “You just got to trust yourself. You got to trust yourself and be confident in your abilities. We got to this level for a reason. We’re a good team, we went to the Stanley Cup final last year with 90 per cent of the guys that are in this locker room. We just got to go back to trusting that the way way we play and the way we work it’s going to turn things around. The minute you stop believing in yourself is the minute that the ship starts to sink. We just got to find that inner belief in our locker room again and throw some smiles back on our faces and just go out there and play. Not think about it is easier said than done, I understand, but we got to find that passion and that urgency in our game.”

The Habs’ only line change in practice on Friday was substituting Sami Niku in on defense for Chris Wideman, as the Canadian Press noted…

Sami Niku could play his first game in a Habs uniform when the Montreal Canadiens hosts the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday. Niku practiced on Brett Kulak’s left side during Friday morning’s session at the Bell Sports Complex. Ben Chiarot replaced Kulak alongside Jeff Petry.

Chris Wideman, who has scored one of the team’s four goals so far this campaign, would be out.

The Habs have lost their first five games of the season, the worst start to the season since 1995-96. The team had its worst-ever start to a season in 1938-39, when it lost its first seven games.

Niku was signed by the Habs on Sept. 24, a few days after terminating his contract by mutual agreement with the Winnipeg Jets.

The 25-year-old Finnish defenceman played 54 NHL games with the Jets, collecting two goals and eight assists. He was named the American Hockey League’s top defenceman in 2017-18, when he had 16 goals and 38 assists in 76 games with the Manitoba Moose.

Jake Allen practiced on his own with goalie instructor Eric Raymond.

Per the Canadiens’ website, this is how Montreal lined up on Friday:

Hoffman – Suzuki – Gallagher
Drouin – Dvorak/Brooks – Anderson
Toffoli – Perreault – Caufield
Lehkonen – Evans/Paquette – Armia

Chiarot – Petry
Niku – Kulak
Romanov – Savard
Wideman

Montembault

The Canadiens’ website offered similar takes on the state of the Habs from coach Ducharme and Allen

To say things aren’t going the Canadiens’ way so far this season is an understatement. But, Ducharme believes things will turn around in short order. While the result against Carolina on Thursday was disappointing, he appreciated the effort.

“I see signs. I see good things coming up. We’ll get out of this. It’s going to make us stronger, and that’s it. Anyone can bury us right now, and we don’t care. Seriously, we don’t. We don’t care. We’re going to take care of business and we’re going to finish where we deserve to finish,” emphasized Ducharme. “Every night, we have 20 guys in the lineup, so we have to find a way as a group. Maybe some guys are learning or processing that we need to bring a little bit more in different aspects, in leadership, or the way they play, but we’ll get through this and do it the right way.”

Allen shared similar thoughts after his workout.

“We’ve just got to go back to trusting that the way we play and the way we work, it’s going to turn things around. The minute you stop believing in yourself is the minute the ship sort of starts to sink,” said Allen. “We’ve just got to find that inner belief in our locker room again and throw some smiles back on our faces and just go out there and play. Not thinking about it is easier said than done, I understand, but we’ve got to find that passion and that urgency in our game.”

And you can watch the press conferences of coach Ducharme, Allen and defenseman Sami Niku if you wish:

As far as Thursday’s 4-1 Canadiens loss to Carolina is concerned, there are recaps available from Sportsnet (per the Canadian Press) and NHL.com, with the Game Summary, Event Summary and Rosters all available; highlights are available by Sportsnet:

On the Red Wings’ side of things, the Wings were definitely emotionally flat over the course of their 3-0 loss to Calgary on Thursday, as Detroit Hockey Now’s Bob Duff noted:

Following an impressive 2-0-1 start to the season, the Detroit Red Wings fell completely flat in Thursday’s 3-0 loss to the previously-winless Calgary Flames. Captain Dylan Larkin was citing their performance as unemotional.

“Calgary, they were way more desperate than we were,” Larkin said.

Coach Jeff Blashill opted to be describing it as lacking in energy.

Here’s another adjective that’s certainly applicable – unacceptable. And it better end right here, right now. This an all-too-familiar scenario with the Red Wings under Blashill. They begin decently, offering hope that there’s a corner about to be turned. However, it all turns out to be nothing more than an illusion.

The storylines evolving during Thursday’s debacle against the Flames were also easily recognizable. The inability to capitalize on chances. A failure to click on the power play. Detroit is 0-for-7 with the man advantage the past two games. There was complete and utter dominance by an opponent in the Red Wings zone.

“We didn’t have the same level of energy that we’ve had, especially in the third period,” was Blashill’s assessment of their performance.

It has to stop and it must stop immediately. This is a huge weekend for the Red Wings. They are playing back-to-back games against winless NHL clubs. It’s a real chance to make hay – or for the season to begin to go haywire.

The pressure on the Red Wings has to come from within more than it has to come from external sources here.

There’s no doubt that this weekend’s set of back-to-back games might very well pivot the season toward promise or heartbreak, but motivation has to come on a shift-by-shift basis, as MLive’s Ansar Khan notes in his game preview:

“(Calgary) hadn’t won yet; they were way more desperate than we were,” Dylan Larkin said after his team’s 3-0 loss to the Flames. “Montreal is the same way. Chicago is the same way. We can’t look past Montreal, but we got to be ready to go. They’re going to be fighting and scratching and clawing for everything they get. We have to go in there with the same attitude and be more desperate or match their desperation.”

This is the Red Wings’ first trip to Canada since late in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season. They will be without leading scorer Tyler Bertuzzi (five goals, one assist), who can’t travel to Canada after declining to be vaccinated for COVID-19. He will meet the team in Chicago.

When the Red Wings were by far the worst team in the league in 2019-20, they still managed to sweep the four-game season series from the Canadiens. Prior to that, Montreal had won nine in a row against them, some by lopsided margins.

Montreal is without star goaltender Carey Price, who earlier this month voluntarily entered the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program.

The Red Wings are expected to start Thomas Greiss on Saturday. He’s coming off wins against Vancouver (3-1) and Columbus (4-1). Greiss is 8-0-3, with a 1.42 goals-against average and .953 save percentage over his past 12 appearances, dating back to April 4. Blashill isn’t likely to just ride the hot goalie if Greiss keeps it up, however.

“His history shows that when he gets enough rest, he’s a really good goalie,” Blashill said. “His numbers are way better with enough rest. Some goalies have to play more in order to have real good numbers. We just have to make sure that we’re utilizing him as correctly as possible.”

DetroitRedWings.com’s Brett McWethy also noted Larkin and Blashill’s remarks in his game preview

Both clubs figure to come out with a high level of intensity, and eager to shake off their most recent losses. Montreal, the 2021 Stanley Cup runner-up, is 0-5-0 on the early season, and has been outscored, 19-4. The Red Wings lacked the energy they generated in the previous three games during Thursday’s 3-0 setback to the Calgary Flames at Little Caesars Arena.

“We didn’t have that emotion that we’ve had, that we’ve played with,” captain Dylan Larkin said after Thursday’s loss. “You’re not going to have it every night in the National Hockey League. It’s 82 games, it’s hard, but when we don’t have our legs and our emotion, we’ve got to find a way to simplify and play a better hockey game.”

According to Blashill, it’s up to the players and coaches to manufacture energy and emotion, and to have it at their disposal every night.

“It’s up to every individual guy to come with that level of energy and urgency,” Blashill said. “I like the word urgency better than desperate. We’ve got to have that urgency, for sure, from the drop of the puck. So it’s up to us to decide that that’s what we’re going to have.

“… We need way better in terms of our approach come Saturday night.”

And, among the Detroit News’s Steve Kornacki’s notes:

Desperate motivation: Larkin knows Montreal will be wired for success, noting the Wings “have to be desperate or match their desperation.”

Blashill, before the season’s fifth game and first on the road, said he doesn’t like using “desperation” in this case.

“We’ve got to have that urgency,” Blashill said, preferring that word. “We’ve got to have it every night.”

Canadiens slumping: Montreal also lost its first five games in 1995-96, but hasn’t gone longer without its initial victory since 1938, when it lost the first seven.

“It’s tough right now,” center Nick Suzuki told NHL.com. “It’s just the confidence for our group just seems to be low. There’s plays that we make all the time and we’re not executing them. It’s definitely a tough patch. … Good teams find a way to get out of it, and we need to really bounce back.”

Ideally, the Red Wings at least earn a split out of this weekend’s games, they learn how to play without Bertuzzi “stirring the drink” for his linemates, and they prepare for next week’s road trip.

Realistically, the Wings need to compete hard against Montreal and compete hard against Chicago, regardless of the results of the games, so that all the promise of their early-season start doesn’t evaporate. This is still a “process over product” season, but a win or two won’t hurt.

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George Malik

My name is George Malik, and I'm the Malik Report's editor/blogger/poster. I have been blogging about the Red Wings since 2006, when MLive hired me to work their SlapShots blog, and I joined Kukla's Korner in 2011 as The Malik Report. I'm starting The Malik Report as a stand-alone site, hoping that having my readers fund the website is indeed the way to go to build a better community and create better content.