The word as long as three months ago at the Call Of The Wilde was that it was going to take 97 points to make the playoffs in the strong East Conference this season.
That looks to be close to the eventual mark, meaning the Montreal Canadiens have to play outstanding hockey to close this season to get to that target. With 11 games left in the year, the Habs must finish with an 8 and 3 mark to make the post-season. They either need a mark that strong, or hope that either the Columbus Blue Jackets or Carolina Hurricanes go into the tank.
One game at a time, as they say. Tonight’s was against the Chicago Blackhawks.
They tried hard, they skated miles and they went to the dirty areas trying to get goals. They peppered the goalie with 48 shots. You can’t say that the Habs didn’t give it their all.
They couldn’t get it done, though. The most satisfying aspect of the game was the ceremony before it, honouring Carey Price for win 315, passing Jacques Plante as the Habs best all-time. They presented Price with a Habs jersey with the number 315 on it, signed by all the players.
Price seemed to really be touched by that gesture. He was also touched by the extremely warm standing ovation he received from the usual full house at the Bell Centre. Price then went out and did everything in his power to get a win for the fans and the for the team. He did his part. The rest of the players were not able to, though, despite a good effort. The puck would not bounce; the ‘Hawks goalie, Corey Crawford, would not co-operate. They needed two points.
A hell of an effort doesn’t register in the standings, so there are no blessings when losing is death. This 2-0 loss felt like death.
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It’s human nature it seems to jump on a bandwagon to criticize one player in particular, but the Habs have had quite a lot of players recently who have slowed down. Jonathan Drouin is the easiest one to call out, with points in just one game in the last dozen. But one can simply keep going right through most of the lineup, too:
Brett Kulak is giving the puck away a lot, and his pinches at the offensive blue line seem to always go poorly.
Paul Byron has created very little for a long while.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi has hit a considerable wall.
Joel Armia seems to have no edge at all.
Shea Weber is likely injured because his mobility looks weakened.
Jordie Benn can’t handle tougher match-ups.
Artturi Lehkonen has been in a slump so long it might not be a slump at all.
Phillip Danault has made big mistakes defensively.
Nate Thompson brings little.
Christian Folin, finally, has no ability to play the new 200-foot hockey whatsoever.
When the Habs were winning a lot of games, they looked like an extremely fast team. In the last three weeks, though, they don’t look fast at all. Where did all that speed go? Point a finger at one player if you would like, but this late-season swoon is about most of the players on the team.
Organizationally, the coaching staff and general manager lost their way again on what was working.
The club was featuring speed, talked about speed and played with speed. Five guys were joining the rush; five guys were hustling back. It was 200-foot hockey. It finally felt like management got it — that they believed in something that was beyond themselves, which was in their careers a journeyman defenceman with an outstanding attitude.
It seemed the head coach and GM finally believed in the excitement of skating and creating. The name of the game for four months in a Habs uniform, starting in the heady days of October, was getting the puck up as fast as possible to lightning-fast wingers moving in full stride. That would back up the opposition’s defenders and the ice would be tilted in Montreal’s favour.
So let’s assess, then, what the last month of this campaign has looked like for the organization. Christian Folin was brought in, but he can’t play with speed at all. Nate Thompson was brought in, but he doesn’t bring the fast-transition hockey that was working for the Habs. Mike Reilly started to get benched, so there goes one player with a fast transition ability. Matthew Peca couldn’t get on the ice much, so there went his speed up to the press box. Jordan Weal became a darling of the coach so much he even got power play time.
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Think about how that settled with the Habs veterans, who suddenly see Weal come in to take their opportunity to get power play time. Also on the topic of hierarchy, imagine the players who are desperate for a win to keep their playoff hopes alive, pick up the game-sheet to see the ice time after two periods tonight and see Weal is the top forward and Jesperi Kotkaniemi is last.
This sits very poorly with players. This fringe and journeyman NHLer Weal, who has just arrived on the scene, leads the team in ice time among forwards. The players who have sweat and have fought all season long can’t make sense of that. They see that sheet and think they’re not losing ice time to star Matt Duchene who was brought in, they’re losing it to fringe player Jordan Weal. Another huge matter is they also can’t make sense that they were in the playoffs at the trading deadline at the end of February and their GM didn’t get them Duchene or someone strong to help to take it home. They believed in themselves, but they didn’t feel that the GM believed in them. At the same time, their style suddenly started to feature cycling and dump-ins. Roster decisions and ice time favoured defence instead of offence. They went from being chased to chasing the game. They didn’t seem to be backing anyone up on the blue line anymore.
The style that the Habs were presenting to their opposition in November and December was gone. And now so are the wins — and soon so is the playoffs.
The best Habs prospects are on fire this weekend. At the junior level, Nick Suzuki continues to pile up the points. The Guelph Storm chalked up a win over the Erie Otters last night, and Suzuki put on a show again with one goal and three assists. This season, Suzuki has played in only 58 games and has 34 goals and 60 assists.
His point totals have all been around this level for the three seasons that he has played junior hockey, but this is the best he has shown as a complete player.
He doesn’t just get assists and goals. They’re often highlight reel material. At the college level, Cayden Primeau is turning into one heck of a sleeper pick in the seventh round by Trevor Timmins. The playoffs are on for Northeastern and the Huskies didn’t play particularly well against Maine in game one, as the Black Bears dominated. Primeau had to make 41 saves on 42 shots for Northeastern to win 2-1 in overtime. A third Habs prospect was also outstanding, as Ryan Poehling played his best game of the season as the number-one team in the country Saint Cloud State started its playoffs with an easy win. Poehling had a goal as Saint Cloud State won 5-2.
Fans are hopeful that Poehling will declare that he is a professional after his season is over and the Habs can sign him for the last games of the season. If he doesn’t declare, there are going to be a lot of nervous people that he may play a season year and get very close to free agency status, without signing with Montreal. Many are already nervous, but Poehling has often hinted that he is excited and prepared to play for Montreal.
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