For this first-round playoff series at least, there is no reason to believe that the Montreal Canadiens are not Kirk Muller’s team and that he is not the undisputed bench boss. So like anyone else who takes over head coaching duties, Muller thought it was important that he put his own stamp on things. And you could argue that because of that, the Canadiens are tied in their series against the Philadelphia Flyers and just might have the energy and cohesiveness to keep this thing going.
One of the most impressive Canadiens wins of the season – a 5-0 manhandling of the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 2 of the series – had Muller’s fingerprints all over it. With Claude Julien back in Montreal resting after surgery to insert a stent an artery near his heart, Muller showed exactly why he has been a head coach in the NHL and probably will be one again, just likely not in Montreal because he doesn’t fluently speak both of Canada’s official languages. It was Muller’s call to move Max Domi up to the third line alongside Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Jonathan Drouin, Joel Armia to the fourth line and Dale Weise to the press box after the return of Jake Evans.
And it resulted in a dominating victory over a team that had done nothing but win leading up to the game. Prior to the pandemic, the Flyers were the NHL’s hottest team with a 9-1-0 record and they followed that up by sweeping the round-robin portion of the qualifying round and Game 1 of their series against the Canadiens. Kotkaniemi scored his third and fourth games of the playoffs, Domi notched three assists, Tomas Tatar came alive and the power play scored twice. Ben Chariot and Shea Weber were a two-man wrecking crew and the Canadiens won every battle that mattered. To be sure, there was a win-one-for-Claude element to it, but it would be impossible to overlook the Muller decisions as a major factor.
“It was more a gut (decision),” Muller said. “The game, just before it started, it was kind of a gut feeling and we changed things around. It either works or if doesn’t. We asked some guys to step up and to do that you’ve got to get them into the game early and see if they respond and a lot of guys did that tonight. They made it easy for me. Everyone played well in our group tonight.”
They indeed made it easy for Muller, and probably for Julien who was watching the game from home, but Muller really helped to set a tone with the changes. Domi is a prime example. He’s an emotional, proud player who gets on a roll when he has some success. That Muller put him in a position to have success by surrounding him with quality linemates was a great move.
When the Canadiens hired Muller as an associate coach in 2016, Julien was still eight months away from being hired as a head coach. (Irony of ironies: The Canadiens coach at the time was Michel Therrien, who is now Alain Vigneault’s assistant with the Flyers.) There was familiarity to be sure, since he had already served as an assistant coach in Montreal, but there was also comfort in the fact that there hasn’t been a level at which Muller hasn’t coached. He was behind the bench for two-plus seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes, has been an assistant in St. Louis, a head coach in the minors and has coached both internationally and at the Canadian university levels.
And now he finds himself tasked with the challenge of getting a Canadiens team through the first round of the playoffs, and possibly beyond that, against an opponent who has been dominant of late. Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said when the team announced Julien’s condition that chances of him coaching in this series were minimal. And since Julien has left the bubble, he would have to quarantine for at least four days upon his return. Perhaps the most telling indication post-game that this is indeed Muller’s team was his response to the Flyers’ whining about putting his power-play unit out on the ice late in the game with his team up 5-0.
“I would never disrespect anybody, but we’re in the playoffs,” Muller said. “You look at the first series against Pittsburgh and our power play wasn’t that great. If this was during the season, it would be a different story, but we have no practice time here. We’ve got to keep working on it. My job is to make this team as good as it can be right now.”
That sounds like a guy who is thinking, a guy who has a clear mandate and is comfortable being in charge. At the very least for the rest of this round, this is Kirk Muller’s team and the early returns are very, very encouraging.
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