In the span of less than two days, Kirk Muller learned that Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien had been hospitalized for emergency heart surgery and left Toronto, returning home to recover, was thrust into the team’s coaching post with virtually no notice, engineered an impressive 5-0 Stanley Cup Playoff victory — his first win in the NHL postseason — and got under the skin of Alain Vigneault, his Philadelphia Flyers counterpart.
All in all, a pretty memorable 36 hours.
Now, two games into their Eastern Conference First Round best-of-7 series, the heat under the eighth-seeded Canadiens and top-seeded Flyers, often cantankerous rivals, has been turned up to a nice competitive boil.
In relief of the recovering Julien, who was home in Montreal after having a cardiac procedure in Toronto on Thursday, Muller guided the Canadiens to a convincing win against the Flyers at Scotiabank Arena to even the series.
Game 3 is Sunday (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
The Canadiens dominated the Flyers from first minute to last. But it was very late in the game that Vigneault says he’ll remember, Muller deploying his No. 1 power-play unit with the score 5-0.
“We had embarrassed ourselves enough, I don’t think we need to get embarrassed more,” Vigneault said of the skaters Muller put on the ice during the slashing penalty that was assessed to Flyers forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel. “We’re going to make sure our team is very aware of that next game.”
Muller, the Canadiens’ associate coach, saw it another way, his team’s slumbering power-play showing signs of life by going 2-for-6.
“Listen, I’ve got a lot of respect … I’ve worked with those coaches over there, they’ve done a heck of a job with their team,” Muller said of Vigneault and his staff. “I would never disrespect anybody but we’re in the playoffs. Look at the first (qualifier) series against Pittsburgh, our power-play wasn’t that great (0-for-12).
“If this were during the [regular] season, it’d be a different story. But we have no practice time here. We’ve got to keep working on it. I totally understand if those were [Vigneault’s] comments, I was probably expecting it. But my job is to make this team as good as it can be right now. I had to keep getting some of these guys that haven’t been productive … they’re starting to feel it and I’ve got to focus on our guys in that situation.”
The Canadiens announced Friday morning that Julien was returning to Montreal, the coach’s full recovery expected following his admission to a Toronto hospital Wednesday night with chest pains and the placement of a coronary stent on Thursday afternoon. The angioplasty procedure Julien had is routinely done to unblock an artery.
With little time to prepare, Muller and assistants Dominique Ducharme, Luke Richardson and Stephane Waite steered an impressive victory, easily the team’s best performance of their six postseason games in Toronto — a four-game elimination in a best-of-5 series against the Penguins and now two games against the Flyers.
It was for Julien and for pride that the Canadiens coasted to victory in Game 2, Muller having joked earlier in the day that he half-expected his boss to phone or text-message him from home between periods.
“It gets emotional during a game so I didn’t check my phone at all,” Muller said. “But afterwards I did and [Julien] was one of the first guys that congratulated us on the big win. So for Claude, I’m sure he’s listening, this one’s for you and the family. He sent a nice congratulations after the game.”
There was no pregame message from Julien, said forward Max Domi, but no one expected that, given the chaotic past two days in their coach’s life.
“We’re all happy he’s doing better now,” said Domi, who had three assists as a wing on the third line, moved up from fourth-line center. “We’re all praying for him and his family. He would expect us to stay focused on the task at hand and I think we did a good job of that. I’m sure he’s proud of our group and he’s proud of his coaching staff. All three of them did an outstanding job.”
The Canadiens had another airtight effort from goalie Carey Price, who earned his seventh career playoff shutout with 30 saves; this postseason, he has a 1.46 goals-against average with a .954 save percentage and two shutouts.
He was supported by a hard-hitting defense, captain Shea Weber playing a team-high 25:25 on his 35th birthday, and by four inspired forward lines.
The intangible, clearly, was Julien.
“We’ve had a focused group,” Muller said. “Having the good news on Claude’s health was a nice relief for everybody. And then it was like, they’re professionals. It’s like, ‘All right, now we got to focus on today’s game.’ Claude’s going to be, ‘Hey, listen, I don’t want you guys thinking about me, get ready for this game.’
“We have great leaders in this room, they did a great job getting the guys prepared. And I think that’s a compliment to our leaders. They had everyone ready to go and they just went out and played our game. We’ve got a lot of respect for that opponent. We know that the next game is going to be tough, so we’ve got to get right back to the books.”