Thursday, December 10, 2009

The plan finally failed

The Canadiens followed their recent formula for winning games perfectly on Thursday night against the defending Stanley Cup champs.

Get badly outshot? Check.

Give up gobs of scoring chances? Check.

Get superb goaltending to bail us out? Check.

Take a ton of penalties, and kill them all off? Check.

Get a power play goal with limited chances? Check.

So, how on earth did this not result in a Habs victory? Because it's not a very sound plan for winning hockey games. Montreal has gotten away with it on more than a few occasions, but you just knew it would come back to bite them at some point.

This is a luxury you have when you have otherwordly goaltending, as the Habs have been getting from Carey Price. But even he has his limits, and when a rather innocuous looking shot from Pascal Dupuis was fired towards him in the third, he finally flinched.

Jacques Martin mentioned it in his post-game press conference, good things happen when you shoot the puck, and ultimately the deserving team won the game.

What I find unfortunate is that the brutally horrendous whistle from Chris Lee that negated what would have been Scott Gomez's tying goal is likely going to mask the fact the Habs are playing with fire every night. I, like all of you, am still in shock every time I see that Lee is working an NHL game. I only have his experience with the Canadiens to go on, but it just seems like every time Lee is working a Habs game, something happens where he draws attention to himself.

This time, with Lee hogging the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, I fear people will be thinking of how the Habs were robbed of a point. Instead, what people should be thinking is how the Pens managed to outshoot the Canadiens 41-21, or how they directed 80 pucks towards the net compared to Montreal's 46, or how the Habs had only two power plays to Pittsburgh's five? If this were a one-off anomaly, then it would be unreasonable to blame the Canadiens for all those things when facing such a formidable opponent. But this was not an isolated incident. Far from it.

The Habs have been outshot by at least 10 shots a dozen times this season, but they have done the same to the opposition only three times. Thursday's game was the second time this season Montreal's given up 20 more shots than it took, but twice more the margin was 19 and another time it was 17. I realize shots on goal can sometimes be misleading, but not all the time.

It seems like a lifetime ago, but how many of you remember that five-game stretch where the Canadiens allowed no more than 23 shots in a game? That was way back in October, when it appeared that Martin's puck possession system was really starting to take hold. In the 23 games since, the Habs have kept opponents under 30 shots only five times, and they now find themselves 24th in the league with 31.6 shots against per game.

OK, those who come here regularly know that I try, whenever possible, to draw at least one positive from the game. The penalty killing is an obvious choice, as the streak has now hit 27 straight games, while the power play goal scored by Roman Hamrlik came as a result of some of the quickest puck movement I've seen from the Canadiens all year. Then there's Price, who was a shining light for the entire organization once again. He's brought his save percentage up to .914 with his last five weeks of work, but if you exclude his two worst games of the season (in Vancouver and at home to Atlanta) Price has a mark of .924 in all his other games. That is a pretty elite number.

But the most important number in my eyes remains .500, and that is where the Canadiens still find themselves today. Will they still be there when Andrei Markov gets back? Difficult to say. If we take the best case scenario and say Markov will play on Dec. 30 in Tampa, that leaves nine games between now and then, in a span of only 20 days. Seven of those are on the road, and five are against teams that are ahead of them in the standings as of right now. So, if the Habs win the four games against the teams below them (Minnesota, Islanders, Carolina and Toronto), then they will only be one game under .500 when Markov returns, and probably still well within striking distance for a playoff spot.

Anyone who says they could have seen that coming back on Oct. 1 is lying.


V said...

I don't know how the rest of December will play out (of course) but I had - and still have - confidence the Canadiens would hang in there until the troops arrive. The team has character, good players and the issues you speak about in your article are as much a reflection of the serious injuries they have endured as anything else.

If they can get everyone healthy for a sustained period of time (and at least keep key players in the lineup) and give the core team an opportunity to play together, I think they will be just fine.

MathMan said...

The Canadiens get outshot because they have no transition and no puck possession game. Those nice warm shot differentials from earlier in the season? Completely gone, so we know they're not entirely incapable of it. Someone should remind Martin that if he wishes for more shots, he needs to apply some sort of strategic system that results in his team having the puck more. Or maybe it's a problem of execution.

I don't care.

I've decided to apply patience about Martin because so many people seem to think he is the bomb. I don't see it. Perhaps because I personally feel that the transition and puck possession game was the #1, no-holds-barred most important thing that Martin needed to improve for the team. Without this, the Canadiens will continue to be a bad team, no ifs and no buts. And I feel it's magical thinking to think Markov can singlehandedly fix this for the whole thing -- moreover, I am frankly concerned that he will not be allowed to be effective in transition and that the coach will negate his fantastic passing skills by demanding an insanely safe approach that will condemn the Habs to spend most of the game in their zone for fear of committing a turnover when passing the puck.

I dearly, dearly hope that Martin has a good transition system up is sleeve and that it just has a steep learning curve.

nk said...

anyone else think price is gunning for a spot on the olympic roster? i just hope his game doesn't change if he doesn't make it. he's ridiculous right now.

pmk said...

just heard on the radio that Markov is making the trip to Atlanta...

pierre said...

Excellent post.....

You are right Arpon, on october first with Markov expected to be out for 2 third of our season I instantly gaved up on our chances to be in a respectable position at the time of his projected return with the Club..... even though Markov's lost lead to the hiring of Bergeron ( which I saw as having long term benefit consequences within our organisation ) when we lost Gionta later on I actually gaved up watching games altogether..... but with the boys winning games they never should have won I came back out of respect for this hard working crew..... it hasn't been pretty hockey as anticipated but playing at 500. it has been SUCCESSFULL... and THAT IS NOT something I could have anticipated within the awfull circumstances that we've been sujected to so far this season.

Lets face it, with Markov's out so too was our chances to be an above average puck possession team from the start..... we had some moments when we outshot the oppositions but for that to happens Gionta, Gomez and Cammalleri had to play on the same line and often be double shifted while Martin had to reduced the 4th line's minutes down to nothing in order to further stimulate our offensive game overall...... with Gionta out and fearing exhaustion we have been reduced to be what we are.... a team without any offensive bravado at evenstrenth that cannot improved their defence by being better offensivelly...... lets face it Lapierre is on our second line while our first line is rather limited in its present configuration.

What amazed me most under those awfull cirmcumstances is not only that we earned 3 wins out of our last four but that the Champs had to play their best game in order to earned their win against us last night.

To bad that december will be unkind to us with that many games to play..... decembre is renowned to be a month in the NHL were overworked overacheivers will go exhausted and start to pay the price for the zealous efforts they have been putting in he first few months...... I guess we will need a few more miracles from Price and so on because the better prepared teams like the Champs will know how to play us as we progressed into the month with diminished energy.

Flying_tee said...

Good points MathMan. I don't think that even a Lidstrom in his prime could solve the Habs' puck posession woes. I'm hopeful, but not expectant that Markov will have a huge impact in that regard.

Most gameplay this season has consisted of the same predictable sequence of events: chase it around in the Montreal zone for 10-90 second spurts, gain control and either turn it over in the neutral zone, or get it deep and go for a change - letting the opposition walk right back into their zone for another go of it.

On the occasions where they do generate a rush, it seems like they're almost always turned around right away.

TK said...

nk - I hope Price gets some consideration for the 3rd spot on the Olympic team. Assuming the first two are Brodeur and Luongo (in no particular order, although Brodeur has been better so far this season, and he's won at a bunch of levels). Well then that third spot should go to an understudy- someone who may carry the load for Canada at some future date. A young goalie like Fluery, Mason, Ward, or hopefully Price. Although you have to think his chances are slim because he wasn't invited to the evaluation camp this summer, and had such a poor outing last year. I doubt a few months of good goalkeeping will get him a spot on thee team, although he may make it interesting.

Anyone else real excited for this little tournament?