After the Canadiens played their 8th game of the season there was almost no hope among fans that the team would be able to salvage the season. Sitting in the bottom of the Eastern Conference with one measly win, a great number were talking about tanking in order to get a top draft pick. Two games later it is a very different feeling within both the fan base and media.
Currently the Habs sit 2 points out of the final playoff spot (although 85% of the season remains yet to be played). At the very least, Canadiens fans are now allowed to hope for the type of performances that will allow the team to slowly climb back into playoff contention. I’m going to make a case for why this team IS a playoff team. That is not to say that making the post-season is a lock – just that with the pieces that currently reside in house, this team should be able to string enough points together to once again play when games matter.
1) Carey Price. Over the past two nights we saw the Carey Price that many of us expected. Sure he’ll give up the occasional softy – Exhibit A was Thomas Plekanec’s cleanly won face-off that ended up lighting the lamp in the first period against the Bruins. What we saw afterwards, however, was vintage Carey Price.
His rebound control was exceptional. His positioning was fantastic, and most importantly – he made critical, game-saving saves at times when the Canadiens defence broke down.
2) Team speed. When the Canadiens are at their best, they are buzzing around their opponents in the offensive and neutral zone creating turnovers and scoring chances. In the final 40 minutes of BOTH the Philadelphia and Boston victories, the Habs were extremely successful at forcing the slower defensemen into making bad decisions with the puck that ultimately ended with offensive scoring chances. Eric Cole has already added to last year’s strengths. Max Pacioretty is also an addition of sorts. The ability of both Lars Eller and David Desharnais to accept more responsibility has meant that Montreal is all of a sudden 3 lines deep offensively. That is a lot to worry about when you’re an opposing defense. Even though Montreal did not get the results in terms of wins and losses that they were looking for early in the season – there have been select few games in which I didn’t feel confident about the ability of the forwards as a collective group.
3. Penalty Kill. You can almost blame all of the Canadiens early season struggles on special teams. The fact that the team was scoring only 6% on the powerplay through 8 games was terrible. What was worse was that the team was only killing 70% of their penalties. For a team that has been penalized 5th most in the league so far – that is a bad combo. Things have changed in 2 games though. Montreal has now killed 82% of the penalties that have taken. As the season goes along, I expect this number to continue to climb with respect to the rest of the league. Montreal’s defenders are blocking shots and clearing pucks which means that although they are heavily penalized , they are still minimizing the other team’s ability to score goals that kill your chances at winning.
Areas of concern.
1) Defense – One area that I’m still very concerned with is defense. TSN made sure to fall all over themselves in praise of Jaroslav Spacek and his ability to block pucks. I love that about the old guy. The question is – how many times did Spacek have to block a shot because he and his defense partner Yannick Weber couldn’t clear the zone. How many times did he have to jump in front of a slapshot because they couldn’t win a puck battle to save their lives? How many extra shots and scoring chances did the other team get because forwards became so tired that they couldn’t help out defensively?
I respect guys like Jaro Spacek, Yannick Weber, and Raphael Diaz because they’ll try to play a game that is outside of his capabilities. That said, I don’t trust them to carry this team deep into the playoffs. Add Andrei Markov to the situation and you’ve all of a sudden got a defensive quad that is filled with redundancy. You can’t have 6 guys out there poke-checking their way to puck possession. You end up expending all of your energy chasing the puck in your own end, giving up quality chances.
As it stands there are two defenders who I trust to play a physical game: Josh Gorges and Alexei Emelin. There are two that I trust with elite offensive talent: Andrei Markov and PK Subban. Going forward that leaves you with 2 spots on defense. One will go to Hal Gill who despite his size plays softer than a roll of Charmin. So who do you entrust to play on his right side? In my opinion if this team has either Yannick Weber or Raphael Diaz playing in that spot we’re in trouble. Gauthier knew that his team lacked a physical presence going into this season and was either incapable of recruiting that element, or wilfully negligent. Until Montreal finds another big body to clear the front of the net we’re going to continue to give up A1 scoring chances off of rebounds.
2)Penalties. It seems weird to list penalties as both a strength and weakness, but Montreal can help their cause immensely by cutting down the amount of short-handed situations that they face. The reasons are two-fold. First, you limit the easy chances that another team gets. Secondarily, Montreal’s penalty kill features most of the offensive players that they depend on to score goals. If Plekanec, Gionta, Cammalleri and Subban are out there killing big penalty minutes, they’re getting run down. Montreal is still walking a tight-rope as far as hanging with the playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. Things are hardly as bad as some made them out to be after Game 8.. but we’re nowhere near close to being in the position we want.