Forward lines and defense pairings
Pacioretty – Galchenyuk – Radulov
Byron – Plekanec – Gallagher
Lehkonen – Danault – Shaw
King – Ott – Mitchell
Markov – Weber
Emelin – Petry
Davidson – Benn
Nathan Beaulieu, Brian Flynn, Michael McCarron, Andreas Martinsen, Nikita Nesterov
As the game-ending siren sounded at the Bell Centre, if you concluded that the Canadiens played a near perfect match but were sunk by number 74 in red, you would have a lot of company on social media. But you would be dead wrong.
It is clear that Alexei Emelin did not have a strong game against Chicago. But to blame him for the loss and all three goals against is uninformed, lazy or worse. I suppose that you can be excused if you are a casual fan just wanting to pile on a not-so-sympathetic player. What is more disturbing is those suffering from media group-think, along with a healthy dose of xenophobia.
Instead, let’s take a look at the Canadiens goals against from a strictly hockey perspective.
Patrick Kane scored the opening goal in the game with about seven and a half minutes left in the first period. Many pointed to Artemi Panarin spinning off Emelin near centre ice as the cause of the goal but did not look further. Let’s do that.
First, why was Emelin there in the first place, many wondered? It’s simple. He was doing exactly what the new head coach asked him to do. Since his arrival Claude Julien has preached that he wants opposition forwards to be challenged in the neutral zone. It is his design to slow down attackers so that they don’t gain the Canadiens zone with speed.
Following Julien’s system, Emelin challenged Ansimov. The skilled Blackhawks forward spun off Emelin and continued into the zone albeit somewhat slowed. Emelin recovered and returned to take his man, Anisimov. No problem there.
Emelin’s defense partner took the front of the net, albeit perhaps a bit too deeply. But the real culprit here is Paul Byron, who despite returning to the defensive zone, took no one. Byron’s man, Patrick Kane, received the pass and had a clear lane to the goal. Kane scored on a perfect shot.
Emelin’s so-called ‘crime’ on the second goal was apparently taking out Brendan Gallagher with a hip check. It was an inartful, failed attempt at a stick check by Emelin on the rushing Blackhawk, that is to be sure. But his play was not the fatal one as Jeff Petry effectively broke up the resulting 2-on-1.
As the play continued, the puck came to Johnny Oduya at the point. Paul Byron was there to provide coverage but did the worst of all things he could do. Byron did not block the shot nor did he get out of the way to allow Carey Price to see the puck. For screening his goaltender and not preventing the shot, Byron said post-game, “That’s on me.”
Am I turning the blame from Emelin to Byron? No, not at all. Clearly, Byron had a weak game in his own zone. But he also got a third period goal and came close to tying up the game with time running out.
The third Blackhawks goal can surely be blamed on Emelin, or the Petry-Emelin duo. Both defenceman ended up on the same side of the ice leaving Artemi Panarin wide open to receive a pass from Nick Schmaltz. Petry said simply, “The communication wasn’t there tonight.”
So to place the blame for this loss solely at the skates of Alexei Emelin is disingenuous. And that’s only looking at the game from the defensive side of the ledger. Was Emelin also to blame for the Canadiens going scoreless for almost the first 53 minutes of the game? And what about a little credit for a very strong looking Blackhawks team?
There are still issues that need to be resolved in the next dozen games of the regular season that go well beyond playing musical chairs with the Habs defencemen.
▲ Carey Price, Shea Weber, Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk, Artturi Lehkonen
▼ Dwight King, Steve Ott, Jeff Petry, Paul Byron, Alexei Emelin, Phillip Danault