TORONTO — The Montreal Canadiens players did not have much time to process the range of emotions they experienced over the past 48 hours.
On Wednesday night, after the Montreal Canadiens lost, 2-1, to the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 of their first-round series of the N.H.L. playoffs, the team’s head coach, Claude Julien, began experiencing chest pains.
Julien, 60, was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he underwent heart surgery Thursday afternoon. The Canadiens later announced that doctors had placed a stent in a coronary artery, and that Julien returned home to Montreal to recuperate. The good news is that Julien is expected to make a full recovery.
With a Friday afternoon start to Game 2, assistant coach Kirk Muller took over and rallied Montreal to a 5-0 rout of the Flyers, pulling even in the best-of-seven series. Tomas Tatar and Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored two goals each and Carey Price got the shutout. Montreal was flying from the start, scoring only 1:02 into the game.
The Flyers never recovered. After Montreal’s fourth goal late in the second period by Joel Armia, the Flyers lifted goaltender Carter Hart and replaced him with Brian Elliott. But the damage had been done.
How Montreal would respond to the scary turn of events was anyone’s guess. Hopes in Montreal had run high after the Canadiens shocked the Pittsburgh Penguins in the play-in round.
Muller did not display any reluctance at his Friday morning briefing as he took the reins of one of Canada’s most iconic franchises. Smiling throughout the 15-minute session, he said he had spoken to Julien Thursday night, mostly about hockey. He said Julien was “fired up” about the game and expected that Julien would be watching on television, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if Julien texted him or called him between periods.
Although Muller has never been a head coach in Montreal, he knows the team well. He was a leader there as a player on the 1993 Stanley Cup-winning team, Montreal’s last. This is his second stint as an assistant coach in Montreal after serving as head coach for the Carolina Hurricanes from 2011-2014, where he posted a .500 record.
“My job is to get this team to win,” Muller said. “We’ve got to recognize which guys are going and which guys aren’t.”
In the club’s public statement about Julien’s status, general manager Marc Bergevin addressed the fact that Muller does not speak French, while Julien is fluent in both English and French. An unwritten rule with the Canadiens is that a head coach must speak French so he can communicate with the French news media and the population of Quebec, where French is the mother tongue of almost 80 percent of residents.
Randy Cunneyworth was the first coach in decades who only spoke English when he was hired in 2011 after the club fired Jacques Martin. The appointment caused a furor among Quebec journalists. At the end of the season, Cunneyworth was replaced by Michel Therrien.
But while Muller took questions only in English in his morning briefing on Friday, he made his opening statement in French. Translated, he said: “Happy Claude is in better health, but we have to remain focused.”
If the Canadiens advance past the Flyers, no one seems to be counting out a comeback for Julien.
“We want to keep this thing rolling, so we get Claude back here,” Muller said. “We got a group of guys that want to do well for Claude.”