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Week 3 in One Word: Unit



Any group of things or persons regarded as an entity Similar: component, part, section, detachment, division A part of a military establishment that has a prescribed organization

Week 3 had the Montreal Canadiens on their West Coast road trip. On Tuesday, they met the Seattle Kraken. Their Thursday match-up was against the San Jose Sharks. Then on the weekend they had afternoon games on Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings and on Sunday against the Anaheim Ducks. Here’s what I saw shake down.

Game 7 of the 2020-21 season saw the Habs lose to an expansion team.

The lowly expansion team reputation took a hit with the Vegas inaugural season. Is it still reasonable to expect the team that finished at number 2 last season might be able to topple the shiny new Kraken? I’ve been moaning about the changes in Montreal and how the coach didn’t use camp well to help them build chemistry. In comes the Kraken, assembled from the ground up this summer to make a mockery of that excuse.

The anthem singer was still basking in the spotlight glow when Jordan Eberle opened the scoring. Mike Hoffman tied the game on a sequence that defines that line – forecheck by Gallagher, perfect pass from Suzuki, pretty finish from Hoffman. But that was the end of the Habs joy. Two quick goals in the second finished the Habs and the final score was 5-1.

In Game 8 of 82, the Habs finally beat the Sharks in San Jose.

The Canadiens went into this game with one win and six losses to start the season, and they had not won in San Jose since 1999. Why not break out of a couple of funks in one night?

Mike Hoffman scored in his third consecutive game to open it, Romanov scored on what looked like a fairly harmless shot, and then Gallagher scored his first of the season on one of his classic net-front baseball swings. Anderson scored the empty net goal and the Habs won 4-0. This was not the dominating performance the score would suggest, but Jake Allen put on a clinic and some bounces went Montreal’s way. A win is a win is a win.

Game 9 was the first meeting of the Habs against Philip Danault in his new home rink.

For the second game in a row the Canadiens managed to get out of the early minutes of a game without being scored against. Late in the first, Anderson opened the scoring on a beautiful pass from Dvorak. I confess I enjoyed seeing Danault beaten and ending the play on his belly following a dive to stop the play.

My joy was short-lived. At 4:31 of the second period the Kings tied the game on a Habs turnover in their own end with Chiarot caught looking on like one of the Royals at Wimbledon. Three power play goals followed by the Kings. The Habs scored one late, but a 5-2 final score makes this one look less ugly than it was.

The road trip ended with a whimper in Anaheim.

On Sunday afternoon the Habs were in Anaheim for a Game 10 show that was truly of Halloween proportions. They announced that Perreault, who had been backfilling at 3C for the injured Evans, would be out 2-3 weeks with an eye injury. Adam Brooks, the end of camp waiver claim drew in. Gallagher could not play after taking pre-game warm-up and Evans was forced to play with lack of options available. Ducharme made another line-up change, inserting Chris Wideman for Sami Niku.

This one started much like the last game ended, with the Habs giving up a goal on the penalty kill. The Habs responded with one of their own, with Mike Hoffman scoring from his office in the right circle. With the Habs thin at centre, Paquette took a boarding call and the five-minute major along with an ejection, and they gave up another goal on the penalty kill. In the second, Evans scored his first of the season to tie it at two. This Basement Battle was decided in the third when the Ducks scored two goals and the Habs lost 4-2.

Eventually, you are what your record says you are. Pundits say American Thanksgiving is when you call it. But this road trip loomed very large in defining the 2021-22 Habs. They ended the road trip with a record of 2-8-0 and having claimed four of a potential 20 points. That’s how you eliminate yourself from the post-season by the end of October.

For as long as Dominique Ducharme is in charge, the Habs will rise and fall on their ability to play as a five-man unit.

Five-man unit. It the Ducharme Mantra. The idea is that no matter which group of five finds themselves on the ice they will know their place in the system, supporting each other in three zones, two guys always available to the guy on the puck to offer options for puck movement. Five guys, all playing closer to the puck, in a structured system.

That’s what I can tell you about Dom’s system, and it’s pretty much all I can tell you about Dom’s system. It’s not as much a system as a set of rules they follow as they operate as a five-man unit. That’s his own description.

When they lose, “we didn’t play as a five-man unit.”

When they win, “we did a better job of playing as a five-man unit.”

When facing McDavid and Draisaitl, “we’ll have to defend them as a five-man unit.”

With their abysmal record to start the season, serious questions have to be asked about the efficacy of the five-man unit.

Saying the same thing over and over is not the same as being heard and understood.

When I travel, I collect the flags of visited countries. Some flags have been easier to collect than others. When I visited the West Bank, I tried to collect a Palestinian flag without success. The effort involved me speaking to a local street seller who didn’t speak English, and repeatedly saying the word “flag” while making rectangle shapes with my arms.

Saying “flag” repeatedly did not make my audience understand me one bit. We reached a point where he was saying “flag” back to me and saying it perfectly. But he still had no clue what the word meant, or what I was after.

That’s what I feel like whenever I hear “five-man unit.” We hear it every time Dom speaks. The players parrot it. But here we are 10 games in and I’m not sure I’ve seen one game where they’ve effectively played as a five-man unit. Even the two measly wins have not been convincing.

Have they stopped listening to him? They seem to like the guy and buy into his coaching. Do they just not get Dom’s system suddenly, after excelling in it last post-season? Did the losses this off-season render them incapable of executing?

Sometimes the whole unit is not better than the sum of its parts.

Dom’s five-man unit concept assumes that whoever is on the ice, they play the same way. When he took over coaching duties, he said his goal was for everyone to be so comfortable playing together – in the system – that it wouldn’t matter who they lined up with. His assertion is that the whole unit, playing as a five-man unit, will be better than the sum of its parts.

The Habs used to have a line with that identity. Danault playing between Tatar and Gallagher formed one of the best lines in the league for several seasons. They each brought strong individual skillsets, but no one would argue either was in the upper echelon in their individual positions. What they formed together was unique. The whole was greater than three good players thrown together, and the results were exceptional.

Is it reasonable to expect that every potential five-man unit that Dom ices will find success together consistently? That the whole of every five-man unit will be greater than the sum of its parts? Is Dom’s “system” that good?

The Habs have a giant hole at centre and another on defence. They have a ton of new players in the line-up this season. They have a fair number of young players. Has Dom considered how these details impact his units? Now they’re in injury trouble again. Does Dom have a response that doesn’t involve him uttering the five-man unit mantra?

I wonder how the five-man unit thing is supposed to look for special teams.

Dom could stand to give some thought to his four-man unit, because right now the penalty kill is sucking like a Hoover. Through 10 games, they are 30th in the league with a 65% efficiency. The PK absolutely ruined them on this road trip. Two goals against in Anaheim. Three goals against in Los Angeles. Two games that should have been four points.

The power play is no more impressive. 30th in the league with an 11% success rate is awful, even for the Habs whose power play has been abysmal for years. You’ll never convince me the personnel is this bad.

In the short term, I wonder if the Habs would be smarter to focus on fixing their special teams and elevating to average in these categories.

The mantra is unit. It’s the word unity is derived from. What we’re seeing on the ice is the exact opposite of unity. We’re seeing confusion, disconnectedness, and chaos. We’re seeing a team that is simply not playing as a team. We all knew going in that the talent had taken a hit. The surprise is how much team unity has taken a hit.

Maybe they need to work on unity before they can be successful as units.

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