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Monday, December 27, 2010

Montreal Canadiens: Has the Habs' Bubble Finally Burst?

by Tyg

The Montreal Canadiens had a great start to their season but it seems that lately, they are having trouble managing .500 hockey. I guess that’s partly my fault because I griped about it for weeks and I feel like they’re fast becoming a bubble team again.

Going into last night’s game, I sort of expected a loss.

The Habs had barely scraped out a win against Carolina, and lately they tend to drop the next game rather than go on a tear. On top of that, the Islanders had just won a couple of games and I expected them to come out confident and pumped, which they did.

It’s the intangibles that are killing the Canadiens right now and I don’t pretend to understand a lot of them. Perhaps someone could help me out here with a few things.


Effort

Remember last year when Andrei Markov complained that they had to play for the full 60 minutes as opposed to just part of the game? Remember how Brian Gionta pointed out that there were times when they sat back on their heels and got into trouble?

The Habs seemed to remember those hard-learned lessons back in October and November. Sure they still had off-nights but there were also times that after an intermission they emerged re-focused, came out hard and played some good hockey to grab the two points.

I don’t know where that team went. I haven’t seen them at all this month.

This current Habs team mails it in more often than not.

There are always exceptions like Tomas Plekanec, but a lot of the time most of the team takes the night off as opposed to just one or two individuals not having their minds or hearts on the game.

Does that happen with other teams too?

Do they all go AWOL at the same time for 40 minutes, showing up only to play for the first part of the second period and once the panic finally sets in, for the last ten minutes of the third period?


Coaching and Leadership

There are some benefits to Jacques Martin’s system though there are some serious downsides to it as well. Puck possession and speed are supposed to be the hallmarks of this Canadiens team and there are have been nights when they have played to those strengths.

Last night was not one of those nights and before post-game interviews were even conducted I predicted on twitter what the head coach would say about the game. I pretty much nailed it.

Martin’s actual quotes were: “lacked intensity”; “too many turnovers in the neutral zone”; “too many penalties and a lack of discipline”. None of this is new or unexpected.

What is troubling is that almost half-way through the season, Martin still can’t seem to fix it.

If one of the kids has a bad night, he gets sent to the press box for a game or two. I can understand why the veterans are exempt from this treatment. I just don’t see how the “Pick a Player to Scapegoat” helps out the team spirit any, or benefits the player.

This "be-perfect-or-else" pressure is not an effective teaching tool. It didn’t work last season either but Martin seems to think it’s the way to go though.

Another problem is the constant line shuffling—which Martin mercifully seems to have stopped with the top two lines—is now going on with the bottom two lines. It didn’t work before, but Jacques is a "never say die" kind of coach once he gets an idea in his head.

Remember the PhD line?

The Habs former third line was a strong offensive threat which bailed out the team when the Gomez line was foundering early in the season.

It was a north-south line that played hard and smart at both ends of the ice, and delivered some timely goals. Since it’s been torn apart Jeff Halpern and Mathieu Darche have contributed little offensively, and Benoit Pouliot is playing so poorly he’s been sent to the press box.

Martin found his lightning in a bottle and stumbled upon a truly effective third line, but he won’t use it. Since his team clearly has trouble scoring goals I don’t understand his logic behind this decision either.

Has the head coach lost the room? Is the lauded leadership group not getting it done anymore? These boys lack more than discipline, intensity and focus that Jacques Martin cannot seem to inspire within them.

The team spirit the Canadiens had in abundance at the beginning of the year is nowhere to be found and that, more than anything, troubles me right now.


Defense

P.K. Subban has made some egregious errors and so has Alexandre Picard, but the fact is these kinks needed to be worked out now and not towards the end of the season.

That means they both need ice time.

But there is something Jacques can and will not do to offset their ability to commit these errors, and that is pair them with a veteran mentor.

Why is Jacques so reluctant to break apart the Hal Gill and Josh Gorges pairing and allow them to back up their shakier teammates? Subban is fast enough to offset Gill and Gorges is solid enough to help out Picard with his foolish decision-making.

The Subban-Picard duo is simply ridiculous and has cost the team games, so why won’t Jacques change it? For a defensive-minded coach, he’s chooses to take a risk by continuing to pair these two.


Goaltending

No, Carey Price’s stats are nowhere near as impressive in December as they were in October and November, but did anyone really think they would be?

I didn’t.

Martin’s system counts on a goaltender playing out of his mind. That means that Price has to shoulder a lot of the load, just as Jaroslav Halak did during the playoffs last year.

The Habs scored one goal last night.

That means in order to win, Price had to deliver a shutout while being hung out to dry by a D corp that continued to break down in front of him. That is completely unrealistic and the fact that he did it for the first two months may have led to the expectation that he could continue to do so for the entire season.

Like every other goaltender in the league, Price needs offensive and defensive support to be effective. He’s not the reason the Habs lost the game last night, and I don’t believe he’s the reason the Habs have lost any game this season.


Offense

There are too many nights the Habs simply cannot complete a tape-to-tape pass, the forwards can’t hit an open net with a flashing neon sign, and when no one other than Mathieu Darche or Max Pacioretty will go within ten feet of the blue paint.

Dwayne Roloson, like a lot of the goaltenders the Habs have faced lately, was good last night when he had to be. But there were also times when it was clear he got lucky he wasn’t facing the Washington Capitals or the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Montreal’s forwards lack finish but they also lack commitment, determination and some good old fashioned grit. They rush into the offensive zone and take hurried, low percentage shots from the perimeter.

This is almost amusing to watch because it’s largely the same strategy that Martin has his defenseman employ to keep opposing teams from getting good clean shots at Carey Price.

It doesn’t work for the opposition any more than it works for the Habs. The difference is that the other team will adjust and take the punishment to get past our defense corps, outskate them, go to the blue paint and beat Price.

The Montreal forwards rarely do the same.

Instead they try for the perfect shot, the fancy play and allow themselves to get pressured off the puck. And before someone cites that they’re too small to play allow me to point out that Brian Gionta can and does win puck battles, and Mike Cammalleri almost never does.

It’s the size of the fight in the dog and lately the Habs forwards have none. Roloson gave the Habs some good chances last night, as did the netminders before him.

I don’t think this team has to be a bubble team. They proved as much during the first two months of this season. I think sometimes they choose to be, and I really don’t understand why.

Do you?

---
Tyg used to frequent the old Forum during her early childhood when her father was a corporate season ticket holder, where she fell in love with Larry Robinson, so her lifelong obsession with the Habs is entirely his fault.

5 comments:

While I agree that there are definitely problems with this team, I have to stress once again that this isn't anything that people shouldn't have seen coming. Just look back to the 3rd Habs Panel on TCL when Iain basically forced me to address TSN's pre-season rankings and how wrong they were heading into December. Well, guess what? They were pretty much right. The Canadiens have always been a bubble team this season, it's just easy not to take things in perspective when they're going well. Easy schedule, built up a comfortable lead and little adversity.

Enter Markov's injury and a ridiculously tough December schedule to balance out the first two months and this is what happens.... they're going to even out again as the season continues and they're lucky not to have many injuries (not yet anyway). People just need to calm down, take a step back and realize what the Habs are going through. And that's a seven game road trip during the holidays.

There's definitely little excuse for the lack of effort, but it's not like they're really playing all that differently than when the season started, it's just harder to keep it up. You'll see, January will be a good month for them and they should be back to where they were at the beginning of the month, or just about.

Well Professor Prax I do hope you are right about the January thingy. It's the lack of effort and rah rah team spirit that concerns me most of all, and the individualistic play by the players that are getting showing signs of frustration. That's the road to disaster right there.

I'm not "uncalm" (I know it's not a word), just wondering when I can have the team back that used to bring their lunch buckets to work more often than not. This team calls out for pizza an AWFUL lot.

And like I said - I don't think they have to play like a bubble team, which is what they have been doing lately. That just sucks and as a far it's hard to watch and/or justify.

I keep waiting for the Habs to spout something new after every game other than "lack of intensity" or effort. That would be some sign of growth and encouragement IMO.

Prax and Tyg: Tyg, first off, great article!

I think that what we are seeing here is the same thing we saw in the playoffs and that is a team that excels when their goaltender is lights out.

Price has been far from stellar the last few weeks and, as such, the team is struggling to maintain a .500 record.

The Habs were near the top of the league in giveaways since the beginning of the season but Price was bailing them out so no one was talking about that stat.

Now, however, the law of averages has caught up to the Habs and they are losing more than they are winning.

The playoffs were a mirage and the Habs "system" relies far too heavily on the goaltender. If Price is not perfect, the team tends to do poorly. That is not a recipe for success.

Prax: You make a great point about things averaging out and I agree! That being said, I think that while the Habs don't have a lot of people officially on the injury list there are a tons of players who are severely banged up right now (not unlike any other team).

Gorges in particular looks like he needs a week off to heal!

Good point Kamal about the banged up players.

Tyg, I know we all have high expectations for the Habs after what they did in the playoffs last year, but it's pretty simple. If the goalie isn't playing the game of his life, the Canadiens are an average team. They ARE a bubble team. That's who they are. They have a lot of good pieces, a lot of good players but there are some pretty glaring holes. People complain about the "experts" putting them on the bubble every year... but they kind of do know what they're talking about most of the time. Like I said, things average out. And one month of hockey doesn't exactly tell us what this team is or is supposed to be. Right now they're not playing as good as they should be, but the first two months they were playing over they're heads. They're not a below .500 team, but they're not exactly a top 3 team in the east either. And if we manage expectations, like I said, things will even out.

Kamal - much thanks as always! Valid point about the banged up thingy. Gorges needs rest.

Prax - I know, but meanwhile I don't think asking them to bring a bit more effort to the ice is an unrealistic expectation and it's my biggest gripe right now. They don't have to play over their heads, but they don't have to phone it in either, which they are doing. It's always one extreme or the other with this team and I can't figure out why.

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