The margin for error in the NHL is razor thin and the Montreal Canadiens keep straddling that fine line, seemingly unsure of how to cross over it to become a winning hockey club. Even a 6 or 7 game winning streak could be enough to vault the Habs into to playoff contention. Goals will bring the fans out of their seats, but strong defence and consistency wins championships. Unfortunately all have been lacking in this year’s Canadiens.
With their season already on the line only 20 games into an 82 game schedule, the Habs may have finally shaken the playoff hangover from last season. With the exception of a recent no-show at home against the Penguins, the Habs have played with more emotion and intensity in the past 5 games. However, recurring outnumbered situations, both in their own end, and in the offensive zone continue, to cause the Canadiens to give up far too many high danger scoring chances to win consistently.
Playing without 2 of their top 4 defensemen from last year and the absence so far of all world goaltender Carey Price, continue to highlight this team’s struggles in their own end. Factor in the departure in free agency of Philip Danault, arguably one of the top 10 defensive centres in the league, and the resulting -26 overall team goal differential thus far shouldn’t be so surprising. However, the Habs poor play has been rampant all over the ice.
Turnovers in all zones, poor line changes on the fly, pinches at the offensive blue line without forward backup, undisciplined play, missed defensive coverages and players leaving the zone early, have all contributed to odd numbered situations, and resulting losses and finger pointing at both the players and coaches.
In the offensive zone, both at 5 on 5 and on the power play, the Canadiens too often are shooting wide, or passing up shots entirely. They are continually and predictably rimming the puck around the boards to the so called weak side, sending the puck back and forth around the perimeter, instead of to the front of the net where most goals are scored. Defending teams eventually out number the Habs along the boards, gain possession and exit the zone, often with an odd man rush into the Habs zone.
Also sorely missing from the Canadiens attack is a strong net front presence. Brendan Gallagher, at 5 feet 9 inches in height, continues to drive all opposition defenders and goalies mad, but he cannot play on all four lines. Unfortunately the Habs have no one else making things difficult for opposing goaltenders. Even on the power play, most shots come from the perimeter or from the point without screens, making any NHL goalie’s game simplified.
Joel Edmundson and Carey Price will help this team on defence this year upon their returns, but the team needs a more consistent 5 man team effort in all zones to find success. The talent is already there. The Canadiens must find the level of intensity and cohesion necessary to compete in all 3 zones, get more pucks and bodies to the net, and defend as a 5 man unit for 60 minutes on a recurring basis, and they can cross over that fine line to become a winning hockey club.