On one hand, you have the home team winning their seventh game out of ten starts, on the back of their red-hot goaltender. But in the wake of Thursday’s loss by the Montreal Canadiens at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets, you sort of forget that Winnipeg are on the verge of sneaking into the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
No, this is all about Montreal. This is all about Montreal reading into their own headlines, attempting to compensate for problems that never existed, and falling into a bleak rabbit hole of misery over the last 40-or-so days. Mired in a five-game losing slump, it’s no longer reached the point where you can say “yes, Montreal are getting pounded, but their percentages are low. They will inevitably regress” and can simply say “well, we’re boned.”
There’s some odd Schadenfreude about what’s been happening in Montreal lately—the firing of Jacques Martin, controversies over the language spoken by the interim coach, the team trading for Tomas Kaberle—that even, I presume, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs could sympathize.
After a 4-0 win over the New York Rangers back in November, the team’s 20th game of the season, Montreal’s score tied, even strength Corsi percentage of 51.2% had earned the team a 9-8-3 out of the gate (some call that a game above .500. I call bull on that, as the team won just 45% of their games) you wouldn’t be hard-pressed to think the Habs record would improve.
But it hasn’t at all. Hockey’s most successful franchise has fallen off an even strength cliff since. The team’s Corsi percentage, a measure used by hockey statgeeks to measure how many of the total number of shots, missed shots and blocked shots wound up being shot at the other team’s net, has dipped to 41.9%. That means the team has the puck far less than half the time, forcing themselves to rely too much on their goaltending.
Sure, a 16-game sample is not as good as a 36-game sample, but it just goes to show just how awful Montreal has been lately, particularly without the existence of their best two-way player statistically in Scott Gomez. It just goes to show, that, even though Gomez hasn’t scored a goal since well before the spring equinox, he has an ability to drive the puck towards the right end of the ice. Without him, they’ve been stumped. He’s been out of the Habs’ lineup since November 25, and doesn’t seem to be close to returning after suffering a groin injury.
Over the course of the full season, Montreal has gone from being “all right” to “not good at all”. They find themselves now with a score-tied possession rate of 47.3%. You can’t win hockey games if you never get the puck.
Randy Cunneyworth, Martin’s interim replacement, was thrown to the wolves, with a six-game road trip to start his tenure and two immediate away games featuring the last two Stanley Cup Champions. He has started off 0-3 through this trip. After the break, Cunneyworth, left to the bilingual media wolves due to his inability to speak French, will act as the perfect foil for General Manager Pierre Gauthier, whose recent moves have bordered on desperation.
Consider the recent trade sending Jaroslav Spacek to Carolina or Tomas Kaberle. Anything to help the struggling powerplay, but, in the highly likely scenario that Kaberle isn’t enough to get the Canadiens back on track and Gauthier is gone by season’s end, he doesn’t have to see the ill-effects of a $4.25M cap hit through to its end in 2014. This wasn’t as risk-averse as his brilliant trade last year for James Wisniewski who left as a free agent after earning 30 points in 43 games with the club.
Gauthier has made some good moves. The signing for Erik Cole at least works as a short-term solution for the team as far as finding the back of the net goes, and his return for Jaroslav Halak was killer, as Lars Eller has turned into a reliable two-way player who probably deserves more ice-time. However, setting aside dollars for Andrei Markov and having no contingency plans on defense ended up being a terrible move. Especially fitting for a team that can’t move the puck forward.
The team has yet to address their scoring issues (they’re 25th in the NHL in scoring) and the average number of shots that Price is forced to see is steadily rising throughout. Without a steady backup, the Canadiens have placed too much of the pressure on the 24-year old netminder.
“[Our goal] is to make the playoffs, and we’re not going to do that as individuals,” Price said after Thursday’s loss. “If we don’t do it, there’s going to be changes. It happened last time we lost six games in a row. Look what happened there, we lost a team member.”
Time is ticking on the Habs here. They get a short break, but hockey never sleeps in Québec. They’re four points back having played extra games, with four teams lying between them and the playoffs. But there is still plenty of time remaining to improve.