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Call of the Wilde: Canadiens make it six straight losses, falling 6-4 to the New Jersey Devils

The Montreal Canadiens hadn’t won in five, and they hadn’t beaten the New Jersey Devils in four. That combination didn’t sound like the city of Montreal was going to be breathing any easier on Friday morning than they have been all week.

As much as Canadiens fans have been disconsolate, the club is still on the prowl for a playoff berth with more good games than bad this season. However, the trend continues to be horrendous as the Habs made it six straight losses, once again losing to one of the worst teams in hockey.

The final? 6-4.

READ MORE: Montreal faces New Jersey on 5-game slide

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It’s been a long time since there was anything positive to say about Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Not only was he in a horrendous slump, scoring-wise, he was also not defending well.

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More often than not, a shift that found Kotkaniemi on the ice was a shift in which Montreal had to defend much too much. He was losing too many puck battles all over the ice. But thankfully, this was a recovery game for Kotkaniemi. This was a game where you saw why Kotkaniemi was drafted third overall.

Kotkaniemi finally claimed a goal on a sharp snap shot from in close, then a short time later, Kotkaniemi hit the post on a re-direction. He also made some solid passes and seemed to be reading the game better, seeing the ice better than he has in some time.

It was his best game of the season.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde — Ghosts of last season linger as Canadiens ripped apart by Boston Bruins

Through all of this mess, Artturi Lehkonen has played his best hockey of the season. Lehkonen had another goal in this contest to move to six on the season. That’s actually on pace for a a 20-goal campaign. He is so streaky, though, that he could finish the entire year with eight, or 25.

The scoring part of his game is a rollercoaster. In all the other aspects, Lehkonen is an all-rounder.

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The Devils took the lead on a mess of a play from the Habs’ top defensive pair. An ill-advised pinch deep in the New Jersey zone from Ben Chiarot led to a two-on-one. From there, Shea Weber‘s job was to make sure that he left the shooter to Carey Price while he blocked off the cross-ice pass. He didn’t. Both defencemen on the ice were unable to achieve their goals. Price wasn’t even in the same area code as a potential save.

It’s extremely difficult to win hockey games when you allow a lot of odd man rushes. If you don’t allow many two-on-ones, three-on-twos or breakaways, there is a much better chance to win.

It’s kind of stunning how much the Habs are neglecting this simple principle. A couple minutes after the odd-man rush that led to the first Devils goal, the Habs were caught up ice again. This time it was Brett Kulak who was behind the play as New Jersey converted on another two-on-one rush. Two goals for the Devils inside the first 10 minutes as the defensive woes didn’t appear to be abating even in the slightest.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde — Montreal Canadiens blow 4-0 lead in loss to New York Rangers

In the second period, it was more of the same — just horrendous defending by the Canadiens. This time it was a breakaway on a poor line change. Again, it was Kulak who was chasing down his man to no avail. Frankly, it wasn’t an outstanding shot by Miles Wood, but it was a breakaway. A shooter alone from five feet has always got a real chance to beat any goalie.

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In the third period, if you can believe it, the Habs allowed another two-on-one rush against them to allow yet another goal. This time, it was Victor Mete who tried a pinch at the Devils’ blue line that had zero chance of being successful. After the goal, Price broke his stick over the cross bar, then smashed it over his thigh as he made his way to the bench, just for good measure.

While those goals, all on odd-man rushes, were not Price’s fault, the fact remains that the save percentage of the Canadiens goalie must be discussed in its entirety. Not for this game necessarily. In this game, the issue was porous defence giving up odd-man rushes in abundance. On the entirety, though, the goalie has to shoulder the blame, and he would agree with that assessment.

In Price’s career, he has put in save percentage seasons of .920, .923, .927, .933, .934, .932, but this season he’s on his way to the worst save percentage of his career. For the first time, Price is under .900 for the year. If Price finishes at .900 or below, there is absolutely no way that the Montreal Canadiens can make the playoffs. Price can’t make much of a difference when the defence is as porous as it was against the Devils. He can be better, though, on nights when he has been soft overall.

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READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens fall to the Ottawa Senators 2-1 in OT heartbreaker

The culprit in this one is the defence. The culprit on many other nights has been Price. Both need to figure this out, or this season will be a carbon-copy of last season — and perhaps not even as good as that playoff miss.

Overall, the goals just kept piling up against the Habs. The Devils looked like the Central Red Army in this one. They entered the night 31st out of 31 teams in the NHL in goal scoring. The very worst team in the NHL, goal-scoring wise, piled on the goals against the suddenly absolutely horrendous Canadiens defensively.

The Habs moved into 28th in the NHL in goals allowed.

There is no way in heaven or earth that you make the playoffs while being 28th in goals allowed. The problem is talent — as in there is not enough of it. Prospects and draft picks are fine, but at a certain point, you have to find a way to solve a problem that has been around a long time. The Habs need a left-handed defenceman. He needs to be able to skate well and have a strong first pass. He needs to be a modern defenceman, not another version of how Bergevin played the game.

Otherwise, it’s another two seasons of this difficulty. If management believes a prospect can come in right away and dominate, they are mistaken. Prospects take time, especially defensive prospects. The Habs need to make a trade. They need to sacrifice a first-round draft choice for a defender who can be on the first pair and put in a solid 22 minutes per night. If not, it’s hard to imagine Ben Chiarot getting first pair minutes is going to cut it. Mike Reilly with a lot of minutes won’t cut it. Shea Weber needing to rely on skating this much won’t cut it. Victor Mete given this much responsibility won’t cut it. Jeff Petry trying to do too much won’t cut it. They need more talent.

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But until that talent arrives, they all can play a hell of a lot safer to improve the bottom line. Talented or not, nothing in the playbook says you should be giving up seven to 10 odd-man rushes a night. In fact, the more you lack in talent, the more you need to think about safety first. I’m not sure what could have ever led them to be this negligent defensively; t’s incomprehensible. Sure, they need more talent, but it’s also a good idea when in a defensive slump not to pinch in at the point or take low-percentage chances all night.

Something doesn’t make sense here. Their collective level is not that high, but at the same time, they’re playing well below their level.

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There are plenty of rumours surrounding Taylor Hall who is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

There is absolutely no chance that Hall will remain a Devil beyond the trading deadline, as New Jersey is already out of the playoff hunt. Hall will fetch a high price, but any buyer must beware that there is a vast difference between a rental and a signed player. If the Habs are interested in Hall, and they are, then they should make sure that they have an agreement in principle for him when they make a trade.

The days of giving up a lot just for six weeks surely have to be a thing of the past. It’s such a gamble, and it pays off so seldomly that it is not intelligent managing. If it is as a rental, Montreal should take a pass. If it’s as a contracted player with an agreement in principle in the area of six years, then one can see the Habs giving up a top prospect like Jesperi Kotkaniemi, a first-round draft choice and a second-round choice. The first rounder would have to be lottery protected that it would not be a top-10 pick.

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Also, Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki would not be on offer. Any thinking that the Habs would not trade their first rounder because they are hosting the NHL entry draft this summer is poor thinking. The organization needs to improve and make the playoffs. They need to care about an 82-game season, not make sure that fans are entertained at the draft.

Montreal needs a game-breaker. Hall was the league MVP in a season in which he counted 39 goals. Hall has been a point-per-game player for the most of his career — that’s what the Habs need. They have enough prospects that they can afford to make this trade.

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