Canadiens: Playing With Lead An Area In Need Of Improvement

New York Rangers v Montreal Canadiens
New York Rangers v Montreal Canadiens / Minas Panagiotakis/GettyImages

This season, when the Montreal Canadiens score the game's first goal, they are an impressive 10-3-2. That would suggest that the Canadiens know how to play with a lead, having found a way to win when up a goal, right?

Well, it’s complicated. This season, when leading after two periods, the Canadiens are 9-0, but it’s rarely a stress-free experience despite the record.

Let’s just look at the Canadiens' last two wins, for example, both of which had final scores of 4-3. In Dallas, the Canadiens beat the Stars but were white-knuckling it towards the end despite having a 4-1 lead with under five minutes to go in the third period. A late barrage from Dallas saw them cut it to three, but time ran out. Had the Stars started their attack a bit sooner or had more time, they very well could’ve tied the game up.

On Saturday, the Rangers did start their comeback bid sooner and, as a result, were able to draw even at three after falling behind 3-0 early. And if it were not for Samuel Montembeault, the Rangers could have won the game, but the Canadiens netminder stood on his head, making 45 saves in what was ultimately a shootout win for Montreal.

These are just two examples of what has been a pretty consistent theme so far this season. The Canadiens need to better when playing with a lead. Yes, their records suggest otherwise, but their lack of regulation wins tells the whole truth. Of the Canadiens 17 wins, just eight of them have come in regulation. They would have a lot more if the Canadiens could protect a lead, with the Rangers game on Saturday being the most recent example.

But we saw this on opening night, too, with the Canadiens squandering a two-goal lead in the third period before losing in the shootout. Three games later, they would blow a two-goal lead in the third versus the Capitals but recovered and won in overtime. Teams like Boston and Colorado, consistently amongst the league’s best year after year, know how to play with a lead. It’s what makes it so tough to beat them; it’s a losing game playing from behind.

This group has me longing for the days of Carey Price, where the thought of needing to score two or three goals in one period in order to win felt impossible. Against today’s Canadiens, it seems like it’s an easy task. The good news is the team is still very young and inexperienced, especially on the back end. They can get better here. This isn’t a lost cause.

This is a clear area in need of improvement, and it’s something Martin St-Louis and his staff should be working on. The better they get at it, the more losses turn into wins, and overtime wins become regulation wins. At this stage of the rebuild, that’s not super important, but pretty soon, it will be vital.

This may be St-Louis most challenging task as head coach yet, as this is where I would think good coaching is essential. Structure and discipline matter far more than talent when defending a lead, and it’s no coincidence that the best teams at it are the ones who have great coaches. We may learn a lot about St-Louis as a coach based on how he navigates his team through this.