After a week off, the schedule maker goes right back to three games in four nights. The first was a loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. One night later, right back at it in a home-and-home against the Ottawa Senators. The Senators are playing better hockey. They may be limited in talent ready to play at the NHL level at the moment, but they are playing with much discipline and grit. The Canadiens, even though Jake Allen made three breakaway saves late, lost in overtime 3-2.
- Honestly, there is nothing truly to be impressed with these days, especially considering what they needed Sunday and the opponent was the league’s weakest team, Ottawa. Montreal needed a win desperately to stop what is looking like a familiar seasonal pattern of a hot start followed by a continuing slide, and they didn’t get it. That’s the bottom line. Let’s not go mining for small positives when what is so concerning is the big picture.
- Victor Mete is in the line-up for his speed. How does he possibly get walked by Drake Batherson in the first period on the tying goal? He didn’t just get walked to the outside on the rush, but he also then had a second chance to get back into the play but lost that battle for strength. You can see Mete losing on strength, but not on speed. The egregious Mete error then forced Alexander Romanov to come over to Mete’s side to see if he could implicate himself on the play. He slid to the ice – a common hockey move in tight – but his timing was bad and he ended up sliding right past the attacking forward. Romanov not perfect on that, but nothing happens without Mete getting turnstiled to start the issues.
- The Canadiens are the second-most penalized team in the NHL. They’re not good enough killing penalties for that. They’re in the wrong division for that. A team can not play against Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in Toronto, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton, Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat in Vancouver and expect to have a lot of success taking the second-most penalties in the league. It was hoped that this issue was just temporary and with some advice from the head coach to be more disciplined this would end. It continues unabated. Just a constant march to the penalty box. The Canadiens are also committing the worst type of penalties in the offensive zone when there are 175 feet to the Habs goaltender. At least, if it were a penalty that was a must-do to save a goal.
- The Canadiens are one for 18 on their power play in their last eight games. As a result, they have dropped to 16th in the league. The penalty kill is 16th in the league as well. Special teams are more on the coaching staff than five-on-five hockey. It’s special teams that are much more organizational in the game of hockey, which among all sports is more frenetic and less planned by far than the other major sports. In hockey, the power play is that place where you get to gain the zone and plan things. So where is the plan? It’s not clear. Is this that they still don’t have the talent? Sure, they don’t have McDavid or Matthews, but this is not a talent-free team. There are players on this roster who a coach can work with to get results.
- General Manager Marc Bergevin didn’t really have much to stand on through the years if he complained that he was not getting enough from his coaches. In fact, it was more true that the coaches weren’t getting enough from Bergevin. However, this season, Bergevin is not going to have such a long leash. He will not let this team slide into difficulties that cost another season without a playoff spot. He added five key pieces from last season: Great players like Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Alexander Romanov, Joel Edmundson, and goalie Jake Allen. Bergevin is not going to be forgiving if this season is a house of cards too. When a GM expects nothing, he is patient. When a GM adds five pieces and thinks he’s created a good team and sees that team under-achieving, he is not patient. Don’t expect patience. The moment that it feels one more loss could be the end of yet another hopeful season, expect it’s over for this coaching staff.
A berth to the National Hockey League’s final four for the Montreal Canadiens in all likelihood is a road through Toronto. It’s nearly impossible to not see that they are the class of the North Division. The only way that this does not go through Toronto is if Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner is injured. Those two are so dominant, right now both in top five in league scoring, that they seem unstoppable.
There is one other slim path for Montreal and that is if the referees put their whistles away when the playoffs begin. If they are in the mood to call five minors per game for each side, and the Canadiens are allowing 10 minutes on the power play, you can forget shutting down Matthews and Marner. The Canadiens have shown zero ability to do that.
In the four games that they have met this year, the Maple Leafs have six power-play goals in the three wins. They did not get a power-play goal in the loss. That lays it out quite well. If the Canadiens can keep this to five-on-five hockey, they have a chance. They likely are the better five-on-five side. The analytics do reveal this. However, they are so much the weaker side in special teams, that any advantage accrued at even strength is negated and then some.
Four games is a big enough sample size to suggest that this is not a pretty picture. The two factors of fewer penalties taken and an injury to one of the two super stars is bad math. These two things are very unlikely to happen. That does not leave the Canadiens in a good position overall to get out of the North.
The battle will be stars versus depth. That battle is not often won in the post-season by depth. Benches are shortened, of course. Matthews gets even more ice time. It seems like Marner is always on the ice. Conversely, Weber is on the ice more, and so is Chiarot. The depth of rolling four lines doesn’t seem to be an advantage in a short series like it can be in a long season when you need to preserve, sustain and keep the energy up. Go-for-it time in the playoffs is not the time for steady teams; it’s the time for greatness to shine.
That leaves the Canadiens roster where it has been for years. With two big holes: the club lacks stars, and the club lacks a sufficient number of puck-moving defenders.
They are a much better club than last year. They have improved their roster by five players who are better than the five players that they replaced. Josh Hamilton, Tyler Toffoli, Jake Allen, Joel Edmundson, Alexander Romanov are better than Max Domi, Nick Cousins, Keith Kincaid, Cale Fleury and Xavier Ouellet. But that doesn’t mean that the five new players are in the class of the Toronto stars who shine.
The Canadiens seem to be a second-place club with some holes to fill still. They might even be a third-place club the way the Edmonton Oilers are putting it together with Darnell Nurse becoming a 30-minute defender, Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi adding support up front that they never had before for stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The Oilers are becoming a well-rounded team in desperate need of a consistent .915 goalie.
If the Oilers and Canadiens meet in the first round, the Habs blueprint for victory would be exactly the same as against the Maple Leafs. Stop the stars. Stop the power play.
It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be interesting. And while it is also going to be extremely challenging, it is enjoyable that at least, for the first time in a long time, the Canadiens are in the mix. So enjoy, if you can, and remember it is a process… sometimes a very long process, but a process always and nonetheless.
— Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.