No Andrei Markov, a slew of new players still trying to fit together, a five-game road trip to start the season, a swing through treacherous Western Canada. All the stars were aligned for the Canadiens to have a wretched start to the season.
All things considered, a 2-3-0 record is not that bad, but everyone knows it very easily could have been 0-5-0.
Still, Montreal's effort in Edmonton late last night was pretty solid, outshooting the Oilers 35-19 and running into a goalie in Nik Khabibulin who had a lot of reasons to shine. After pissing away two tight games in the final minute of regulation, the Bulin Wall was up to the task last night, and the Habs were the unfortunate victims.
But honestly, considering everything that has already happened to this team so early in the season, I think this five-game road trip was like an extension of training camp, a chance for Jacques Martin and his coaching staff to continue tinkering with their lines and defence pairings.
Nothing in that area is set in stone yet. At times last night we saw Travis Moen skating with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, which is definitely not the role he was meant to fill. Mike Cammalleri spent time on the second line with Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn, but Gionta saw a few shifts there as well.
Meanwhile, the defence is still looking for chemistry, and the coaches are still learning the strengths and weaknesses of these guys. How else do you explain Hal Gill manning the left point needing a goal to tie it late in the game? Protecting a one-goal lead, he would be a fine choice. But needing a goal? Not so much. Predictably, his flubbing of the puck on the blue line killed the Habs final mad dash for a goal.
But now, it's time for the season to start. No more excuses with the next four games slated for the friendly confines of the Bell Centre. It's time to play.
A few glaring issues have become apparent only five games in. For starters, the special teams need to be much better. Everyone expected the power play to suffer in Markov's absence, but to this extent? The Habs are 1-for-12 with the man advantage since Markov was hurt in Game 1, and a team with Jaro Spacek, Gomez and Cammalleri should not be that bad. It needs to get better.
But the penalty killing has to get a lot better. There's no real injury excuse here, even though Markov did spend a lot of time killing penalties. I don't really understand why Gomez has become a regular on the PK, with 1:23 per game of shorthanded time per game. That's more than Maxim Lapierre. Does that make any sense to you?
A big reason the PK has been so bad is the Habs inability to clear the front of the net. How many goals have we seen so far that were either batted in or tipped from within three feet of the crease? Too many. The Flames, Canucks and Oilers all took advantage of the Habs in that respect. I thought this was what made Gill such an attractive free agent, his ability to make sure his goalie sees the puck and doesn't have to deal with rebounds. Gill leads the team in PK ice time at 2:29 per game, yet the problem persists.
But all things considered, the Habs are in pretty good shape following this very difficult road trip, one where the team historically has trouble performing. That excuse, however, has now been used up. The Habs have four days at home to recover and shore up some system issues before hosting the red-hot Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night. They'd better use that practice time to its fullest potential, because the season starts for real from now on.