Monday, February 2, 2009

A timely slump

January may have been a month to forget for the Montreal Canadiens, but things are not quite so dire as they appear.

The Habs put together a 7-6-0 record in January and the clear trend shown in those games was poor defence and worse goaltending. The Habs scored a healthy 3.46 goals per game in the month, but allowed 3.77 per game. That's way too much.

Carey Price looked pretty good over the weekend against L.A. and Boston, particularly against the Kings when he had to erase a number of mistakes by his teammates. He'll have to maintain his level of play if the Habs want to have any chance of making a push.

On defence, there's no one happier to see the month of January come to a close than Roman Hamrlik and Josh Gorges.

Of course, Gorges closed out the month checking to see if his head was still screwed on properly, and who knows how that might affect his play. But judging by his numbers over the past month the guy could probably use a break, though no one wants to have to suffer a concussion on a flying elbow to the head in order to get some rest.

In 13 games, Gorges was a minus-11 after going a gaudy plus-18 prior to New Year's Day. He looked and played like he was tired over the last few weeks, and that likely has a lot to do with the fact he's been logging more minutes than he ever has before.

When Mike Komisarek went down to injury Nov. 13, Gorges had played more than 20 minutes in five out of the team's 14 games. After sliding into Komisarek's slot on the top pair, he logged 20-plus minutes in 24 of the next 34 games. He always played a lot on the penalty kill, but in mid-December he started playing on the power play as well and all the extra responsibilities appeared to take their toll. For an example of what a tired defenceman looks like, here's Exhibit A:

This is not an attempt at finding an excuse for Gorges, simply a reason, and while I feel he's a very valuable defenceman he's probably best served playing a third-pair role with PK duty.

The same is not true, however, of Roman Hamrlik, who needs to be much better than he's been of late. Hamrlik's January was not much better, with a minus-8 in 13 games and, more importantly, a propensity for brutal mistakes in his own end. The sample size may not be large, but in the one and a half seasons Hamrlik's been in Montreal, I don't think he made more mistakes than he has in the past three weeks alone. Weak clearing attempts, botched assignments, and watching pucks flying into his own net.

Hamrlik needs to play at least 22 minutes a night, but if he keeps playing the way he has I don't see how his ice time doesn't get cut, even though there aren't any better options on the Montreal bench right now. Watching the mental mistakes he's making makes me wonder if he's not playing hurt, and that's pure speculation on my part.

Bob Gainey's assertion that he needs another defenceman has never been so clear, and whether or not he can land one will go a long way toward determining how far the Habs go this season.

But in spite of all the gloomy talk on this blog and in Montreal right now, the Habs slump in January couldn't have come at a better time. The 7-6-0 record is nothing to brag about, but the fact is the Habs lost very little ground to their main Eastern Conference opponents over the month.

Prior to Sunday's loss to the Bruins, the only Eastern team to take considerable advantage of the Canadiens poor play was the New Jersey Devils - who contributed to the Habs woes by beating them twice in January. The Devils made up eight points on the Habs between Jan. 1 and 31, but no other team still thinking about a playoff spot made up more than four points on Montreal over that span. The Bruins and Sabres made up four points each, the Panthers three points and the Capitals one point. Both Carolina and Philadelphia kept pace with Montreal, while the Habs gained ground by one point on the Rangers and three points on the Penguins.

So really, if there is a time to tank, the Canadiens seem to have chosen the right one. The key now is to ramp it up as everyone starts fine tuning into playoff mode, and Sunday's effort against Boston was a step in the right direction.

The loss of Robert Lang and Guillaume Latendresse will hurt, but the Habs will have to find a way to rally around those injuries the way they did for the ones to Saku Koivu, Christopher Higgins and Alex Tanguay.

If they don't, the next slump may not be quite so forgiving.

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