“We have to win that game. Good teams win that game. Average teams win that game.” – Max Pacioretty.
He’s right. The Habs captain, who came out to play like most of the rest of his team – with desire and purpose – was merely stating the facts. And the facts are plain for anybody to see. Since the 18 wheeler once driven by Ron Wilson went off the cliff on December 2, the Canadiens are 4-15. That’s expansion team territory.
Good teams don’t take a 2-1 lead midway through an emotionally charged second period only to give up the lead just 67 seconds later. Good teams don’t take a 3-2 lead after their top line connects with less than six minutes to play only to give up the lead just 44 seconds later.
Good teams don’t lose the game when they outshoot their opponent 49-22. Good teams score more than one goal on seven power play opportunities (14%).
Once upon a time the Canadiens were a very good team. When Carey Price was their goaltender. When one goal games were usually wins not losses. Price took a good team – maybe even just an average one, right Max? – and made it so much better. Without him, every mistake – by the goalie, defensemen, forwards, coach or general manager – is magnified.
I know there are other issues with the team. I’ve never seen a lot of what I’m seeing – this kind of territorial advantage almost night after night with nothing to show for it. But I’ve also never seen a Canadiens team go three months without its star goaltender. (I’ve been watching since 1965. Missed the Jacques Plante era but he played almost every game. From Hall of Famers Gump Worsley to Ken Dryden to Patrick Roy the Habs that won were anchored by the best goaltending in the league. When there was an injury – to the reigning Vezina Trophy winner Worsley in 1967 – the Canadiens could turn to 33 year old two-time all star Charlie Hodge. And later that season Rogie Vachon would begin his brilliant career. But without Worlsey in top shape they lost in the Cup Final to the Leafs. The following season a healthy Worsley won his second Vezina and the Habs won the first of back to back Cups. Dryden retired following Montreal’s fourth consecutive Stanley Cup in 1979. Three goalies – Bunny Larocque, Denis Herron and Richard Sevigny were ok. But without Dryden, the Habs were kayoed in the ’79-80 playoffs by the Minnesota North Stars.)
So yeah those other issues – an obvious lack of finish, no true #1 centre, a bad power play – are really nothing new. They lost to Tampa Bay in the playoffs even though they enjoyed a territorial advantage throughout the six games. No, this collapse really is mostly about Carey Price. Surely even Tomas Plekanec would concede that by now.
- Tomas Plekanec-Brendan Gallagher-Max Pacioretty. Played like a top line. Combined for 22 shots on goal led by Plekanec with 9. Both goals – by Pacioretty in the second and Plekanec (his second in 29 games) in the third should have provided enough momentum to carry through to a victory. But to see it undone as quickly as it was by a depleted St. Louis Blues team spoke volumes. This team doesn’t know how to win. Like an average team. Or worse, an expansion team.
- P.K. Subban. Rose to the occasion. Fired pucks at the net all night (14). Controlled the play. Seemingly always had the puck on his stick. That’s two goals in three games. There are more coming. His partner was pretty good too – for three periods. The Canadiens best players – their leaders – were their best players in this one. But it still wasn’t enough.
- Alex Galchenyuk. Back on the wing (for those who suggested that before the end of the season Galchenyuk would be playing left wing with David Desharnais as his C you can take a bow) where he generated shots (6) but no goals.
- Jeff Petry. Puzzling to me that he doesn’t get more of an opportunity on the power play.
- Nathan Beaulieu. Saved a sure goal by protecting an open net late in the first period. Then created a goal by carrying the puck deep into St. Louis territory before finding Pacioretty to give Montreal a short lived lead. Unfortunately on the next shift it was Beaulieu’s soft play (Lars Eller too) behind the Montreal net that led to the game tying goal by Paul Stastny. Kind of a microcosm of Beaulieu’s play of late – inconsistent.
- Alexei Emelin. Ouch. The human wrecking ball does it again. And it was perfectly clean.
- Power Play. Heading into the game the Habs were limping along at a 7.8% rate since December 3 – worst in the NHL. The Blues tried to hand them the game. They took four consecutive penalties to start. Subban scored on the 4th. Later in the second period It was an innocuous (by Gallagher standards) nudge into Brian Elliott that set the Blues off two minutes after Stastny’s deflection tied the game. It was a weird site, seeing the Habs top line together in the penalty box following the scrum that ensued. Good teams pounce on moments like that. Even without their three best forwards the Habs had the time and space to beat Elliott after David Backes took the extra roughing penalty. Nothing. Same thing happened after the Emelin hit when Kevin Shattenkirk took an extra roughing penalty (plus a misconduct). We know what’s happened in the crease since December 3 but what the heck happened to what was – at that point – a good looking power play?
- Dale Weise. Looked like a guy who hadn’t played since New Years Day.
- Jacob De la Rose. First NHL game of the season was uneventful. While Daniel Carr had a goal and an assist in a losing effort by St. John’s in the AHL.
- Tomas Fleischmann. Finally played some inspired hockey in the third period, perhaps after realizing his NHL career was winding down. One goal and one assist in 21 games.
- Mike Condon. Allowed four goals on 22 shots (.818). The good saves – on breakaways and odd man rushes – mean little in the end. Through no fault of his own Condon has usually been the second best goaltender on the ice in virtually every Montreal game. When even a struggling Brian Elliott can out-perform him you know the Habs are in tough. His overall record is 12-15. His season save percentage is .908. The league average is .917. Condon is 36th in the NHL. It’s nobody’s fault. He is a rookie back up goaltender. The Montreal Canadiens winning percentage with Carey Price in goal this season is .833. In the 33 games without him they’re 13-20 or to be more precise 13-16-4. Or to take it one step further – .454. A year ago with Price in goal the Habs played .712 hockey. Without him they were .500. Not that hard to figure out, is it?
- Michel Therrien and/or J.J. Daigneault. For the second time this season they got burned in OT with Andrei Markov on the ice. Just days after Therrien acknowledged that he and Daigneault have to do a better job managing Markov’s minutes they used him for 26:05 in the first of a very difficult back to back on the road. Yes he played a strong game (but not nearly as strong as his D partner. With Subban at over 30:00 how will they look in Chicago?). But three on three hockey is a completely different game. Should Markov ever see the ice in OT? Yes – if there’s a face off deep in Montreal territory or at the other end of the ice – with 10 seconds or less left to play. Habs D rotation in OT should be Subban, Petry and then Beaulieu not Markov. It’s shinny out there. It’s almost as if old school types Therrien and Daigneault don’t get this. Plekanec-Pacioretty-Subban to start? Ok. Then Eller-Gallagher-Petry? I’d go with Galchenyuk but it looked like they wanted Eller on Tarasenko. That’s a defense-first mentality against a Western Conference team. Strange that in a 60 minute game that featured the Habs in attack mode they should then worry about the other guys. And Paul Byron – who almost won them the game late in the third period when he split through the defense with his blazing speed – never sees the ice? This silly notion that the Habs have “quit on Therrien” should be put to rest. His players are competing for him. But that’s not to say they aren’t questioning him.
- Jarred Tinordi traded to Arizona. I don’t know anything about Victor Bartley. He’s a depth guy and Marc Bergevin has done a good job finding depth guys. Mike Weaver turned out well. And Byron has been a real find. But it’s painful to see a former first round draft choice who’s built like Tinordi (6’6″ 230 lbs) traded away at age 23 for a depth guy. Through all the ups and downs Tinordi ended up playing a total of 46 games in the NHL. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him in Arizona. Neither do you. But you can’t help but wonder if his sad Montreal tale would have ended differently if he had a guy like Larry Robinson working with him.