by RGM81 aka Richard McAdam

There was so much optimism going into this year. Carey Price was coming off a career year. P.K. Subban was going to improve on his rookie campaign in which he tied a Habs’ team record for goals by a freshman blueliner. Max Pacioretty would be back stronger than ever. Scott Gomez couldn’t possibly be as bad as he was in 2010-11. Andrei Markov would finally return to quarterback the power play and stabilize a defence corps that had over a dozen guys play the point for the Habs in ’10-’11. And of course, the greatest false comforting myth of all: we pushed the eventual Stanley Cup Champions to overtime in Game 7, and only lost because of a fluky deflection goal.

There were plenty of good reasons for Habs fans to feel good about the team coming into the new season. I alluded to all of them above. Yet, it seems that few of those things have turned out the way many of us had foreseen: Markov is still weeks away from a return, Gomez was equally ineffectual to last year before getting injured, and Subban is clearly in the midst of a sophomore slump. The Habs are nearing the quarter-mark of the season, and after 14 games some very disturbing trends have emerged, and the very real threat that the 2011-12 campaign may end in missing the playoffs is emerging to the forefront.

Common Sight on Habs Power Play

The power play has been horrible so far this season. There have been several “0-fer” nights where numerous power play opportunities have resulted in no goals being scored. Indeed, in the game against the Oilers, in the first five chances, the team had a total of two shots and gave up a short-handed breakaway goal. In addition to being an anemic 12.7% (25th overall) the Habs have allowed three short-handed goals, the most in the NHL. Through 14 games, the team is only +4 on the man advantage. By comparison, the 2nd-ranked Vancouver Canucks have scored 19 PP goals and conceded but a single short-handed goal. If there is one area which desperately needs the return of Andrei Markov, it is the power play. He has always been the quarterback for the Habs on the man advantage, doubling as both a slick passer and a scoring threat on the backdoor pass. Until he returns, however, there is little reason to believe that there will be a marked improvement.

Actually, the offence in general is once again horrid early this season. In 2010-11 the Canadiens finished tied for 23rd in total offence, making it to the playoffs on the strength of a strong defensive system and often other-worldly goaltending from Carey Price. The offensive area of Montreal’s game has seen little improvement so far. They are currently ranked 20th in goals for. Though he has had some great bursts and near-misses, Erik Cole has only managed three goals this season. The captain, Brian Gionta, has been in a season-long slump. Mike Cammalleri has as many goalposts as goals scored. There have been quality opportunities every night, yet somehow the Canadiens have made opposing goalies look like Vezina candidates on a nightly basis.
The saving grace last year was that the Habs had a top ten defence. Unfortunately they rank 20th in goals against. Carey Price has often been the second-best goalie out on the ice. He hasn’t been bad but the keeper at the other end of the rink has looked unbeatable on many occasions. Carey needs to be at that level every night. But he also needs stronger help from his defencemen. There have been a handful of key breakdowns in the Canadiens zone that result in goals against. Many of the goals scored on Price have been on rebounds scored from less than five feet away. There have been occasional long-distance deflections and maybe even a stinker or two, but the Habs defensive system is based on a strong commitment by all five players on the ice to limiting high-percentage opportunities against the goaltender. Giveaways, blown coverage, and unmarked opponents have yielded goals against. Price can definitely step up his game a notch, but he is far from alone in that regard.

A Haunting Image - Can He Recover Fully?

As has seemingly been the case every year recently, injuries are mounting early. Last year numerous Habs missed numerous amounts of games, and I am not referring to 3rd or 4th line guys that only play a few minutes a night. Key players are out or playing hurt. Markov is still weeks away from returning from his latest knee surgery, and while one hopes he will still be the same old dominant Markov, he could just be one more awkward hit away from being shelved again. The injury to Gomez, as bad as he has been, means that guys that aren’t ready for prime time are getting bumped up a spot. David Desharnais is good in a limited role, but with his lack of size he cannot be expected to play top-line minutes. Kostitsyn is out for a bit, as evidenced by the call-up of Palushaj to play on the west coast trip. Gionta is playing hurt and has been all season. Pacioretty, ever the wolverine, is playing hurt and battling through a wrist injury. Many Habs fans could legitimately make an argument that things would have been different against Boston in the playoffs if they had a complete line-up that included Markov, Josh Gorges, and Pacioretty – it may be a fact of life now that the Habs are destined to never have a full roster of players.

P.K. Slumping

P.K. Subban is officially having a sophomore slump. He is not contributing offensively, which is made all the more problematic given that there’s really nobody else on the blue line that is expected to step up in the event he cannot produce. Through 14 games he has a mere 4 assists (including a single point on the power play) and is a -4. He continues to take bad penalties; his 25 PIM leads the team and that number includes many weak penalties borne out of frustration and a low compete level. They still chant his name at the Bell Centre, but P.K. needs to elevate his game dramatically. He’s been more reliable defensively than last year, but the offensive side of his play has disappeared and that is a bad omen for a blue line corps whose points leader is Josh Gorges (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).
Josh Gorges has more points than Erik Cole, Subban, Lars Eller, power play specialist Mathieu Darche, and Gomez. That makes me as a Josh Gorges fan very happy, of course, but it is clear evidence that key guys are not producing. Darche’s name is included sarcastically and only because coach Martin is absolutely insistent upon using Darche, who has a career 3 power play goals, in man advantage situations. This happens while Cole, Kostitsyn, and Eller sit on the bench. All three of these players are bigger and play bigger than Darche, and have much better skill sets suited to generating offence. Darche is a great teammate and a guy that his mates love to have around, but it must be galling for the team’s skilled players to be kept on the pine during prime scoring situations.

All of this means that 14 games into the season the Montreal Canadiens have 12 points. They sit near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, ahead of only the New York Islanders. They have won just two games of eight on home ice. Over the course of the remaining 68 games they will need to accumulate 84 points to reach 96 points, which was the benchmark for the playoffs last year. The simplest math on this is a 42W-26L balance of the season. Whittle away a few wins to be realistic here and 38W-22L-8OTL is another mathematical formulation that yields 96 points. In short, this team needs to get hot, and fast. It is not too late, not by a long shot. It being so early in the season, a five-game winning streak can vault a team back into a top 8 position. But we are also reaching a stage where a five-game losing streak can make things tremendously difficult for a team that is already on the outside looking in at a playoff position.

It Will All Fall on Price's Shoulders

The Canadiens face a daunting challenge if they want to make the playoffs. A weak October has put them behind the 8-ball. They took only 10 of a possible 22 points, and dropped three games within their division, losing twice to the now-suddenly-struggling Maple Leafs and once to Buffalo. Overall, in six of their losses they have scored fewer than two goals. This puts tremendous pressure against Carey Price; he simply cannot allow a weak goal or it will surely deflate an already-fragile group of forwards. There is no such thing as an “easy game” for this Habs squad, and with 11 games in the remaining 20 dates in the month of November, there will be several difficult ones. If they go 6-5 for the rest of November, they will still only be at 24 points through 25 games, which would definitely keep them outside of the top eight in the tight Eastern Conference.

It is not too late for the 2011-12 season for the Montreal Canadiens. There are still reasons to have hope: Markov will return, the top forwards will surely start to cash in their opportunities, and Price knows he can play better. The stars will need to align a bit for the Habs for them to get back into the hunt, and I remain optimistic that they will. We will know in three weeks whether this team has what it takes to pull itself up by the bootstraps and contend. I hope that things get on track. If they do not, it could be a very frustrating season ahead.