If it was only a case of the last two games where the Canadiens looked horrible in the first period, it might be excusable. But this has become a season-long trend, and it's one that can't necessarily be blamed on injuries or anything else.
After Thursday night's 6-2 loss in Buffalo, the Habs have now been outscored 32-13 in the first period of games this season. The last two games, the first period meltdowns have been a lethal combination of poor goaltending and daydreaming defence. Carey Price should have been able to keep the two first period markers out of his net on Tuesday, and Jaroslav Halak didn't do himself any favours with poor rebound control in Buffalo, though I acknowledge it's not easy when you've been sitting on the bench for three weeks.
But, porous goaltending aside, how is it that teams regularly get the jump on the Canadiens right off the opening faceoff? Are they not mentally ready to play the game? Is it a tactical issue? Are their opponents being poorly scouted? Either way, all those factors fall under the purview of coaching. Over the last three games alone, the Habs have been outscored 7-0 in the first period. Only a tremendous second period by the Canadiens against Washington on Saturday night allowed them to salvage a point in those three contests.
With two key offensive players missing, the Habs can't afford to be playing catch-up hockey all the time. The Habs have trailed after the first period 17 times in 28 games, and they have a 4-11-2 record in those games. When they have led or tied after 20 minutes, that record jumps to 8-3-0.
I'm not saying coaches have to be fired or anything, but Jacques Martin needs to make some sort of an adjustment here, and fast. Because if there was one game where the Habs would be excused for having a slow start, it would be Friday, where the pre-game centennial ceremony is seemingly being directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
But a poor start against a hot Boston Bruins team that has picked up points in six straight games - winning five of them - will ensure a spoiled birthday party Friday night unless Price can pull off a miracle. And no hockey team should be banking on their goalie to steal them a win. The Canadiens appear unwilling, or unable, to play what used to be Martin's trademark - boring, shutdown hockey. When you have two key offensive players out and several others playing themselves back into game shape, it's what needs to be done.
Should the Habs fall into the same trap Friday night and drop the game to Boston - which looks extremely likely from where I sit - it would drop their record to 12-15-2. That would be the first time Montreal would be three games below .500 since Oct. 17, when they were 2-5-0 after losing five straight games.
Without Andrei Markov in the lineup, the Habs have done a great job sticking near that "magical" .500 plateau, which is where I believe they need to be when Markov returns to have any hope of a playoff berth. But if the Habs drop to three games back on Friday, with some pretty tough competition on the horizon over a busy month of December, a very real danger exists of dropping right out of the race.
Not to be overly dramatic, but the Canadiens need to win Friday to stop the bleeding and hang around the vicinity of eighth place. If they drop too far back, they just might not be able to make it all the way back when (or if) they ever get fully healthy. And, if that's not motivation enough for them, the Habs should consider this: the Leafs are only three points behind them, and Toronto has a game in hand.
Be afraid people.