It Hab-Ened Last Month: Inconsistent Habs
As of this writing, the Montreal Canadiens are sitting pretty at the top of the Northeast Division, with 31 points and a 5 point lead on the 8th place Boston Bruins, who also have two games in hand. The Habs have only allowed 47 goals, second to only the Bruins in the entire league, but have only score 60 goals, again, second last to only the Bruins amongst playoff teams. The Ottawa Senators (8 points behind), the Buffalo Sabres (10 points behind) and the Toronto Maple Lols (12 points behind) are nearly non-threats for the Habs at the moment.
The Canadiens had a presentable 7-5-0 record in their month of November, a span that was basically considered the Habs first big "test" of the season, as the competition toughened and the Canadiens's opponents began to include the Vancouver Canucks, the Boston Bruins, the Philadelphia Flyers (twice), the Los Angeles Kings and the rival Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Habs basically defeated all of them. Most of the above victories were good ones, as the Canucks, Flyers and Leafs were shut out, and the Bruins and Kings were held to just a single goal.
The problem for the Canadiens, however, was when they lost. Despite the impressive list of teams above, their losses came at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Ottawa Senators, the Nashville Predators, the Atlanta Thrashers and the Philadelphia Flyers (the second time). It's not that any of these teams should be "easy victories" for the Canadiens or anything of the sort, as nearly every team on that list has been good so far this season or will at least compete for a playoff spot later on. But through the 12 games played in the month of November, save a four-game win streak right in the middle of it all, the Canadiens have arguably been the most inconsistent team in the league.
Since the 3-0 victory against the Flyers on the 16th, the Canadiens have been completely unable to string together any sort of streak, win or loss. Every win has been followed by a loss, and vice versa. And what's even weirder is that while no win in the last month has really been a "blowout", outside of the 7-2 home victory against the Hurricanes, each of the 7 Canadiens victories in November have been really good ones. Each win has been an outclassing of their opponents. This includes three shutouts, thanks to Carey Price.
But the month of November was also home to three shutouts for the opposing teams, including the Blue Jackets, the Preds and the Thrashers. And, well, the Habs didn't look so hot in any of the other losses this past month.
And I know I probably sound bad complaining about a 7-5 monthly record while the Habs sit in 3rd place in the East with a comfortable lead over any competition, but there's such a thing as losing gracefully, and losing flat-out badly, and the Canadiens were doing a lot of the latter in this past month. In their five losses, the Canadiens were outshot 177 to 138. They went 12 out of 15 periods without scoring a goal, and in pretty much every game and almost every period, save for one against the Flyers and a couple against the Sens, they looked completely outmatched, as if they didn't even belong on the same ice as their competition.
Compared to their amazing performances in their seven wins, this is totally inexplicable. In their seven wins, the Canadiens outshot their opponents 268 to 262, so it's not completely unbelievable that they were outshot in their losses, as the defensive juggernaut that impressed fans in the month of October took a major hit with another injury to defenseman Andrei Markov, and it was only a matter of time before the overage defense corps of the Habs began to feel the pressure of playing more important minutes. But in those seven games, the Canadiens scored goals in 17 of 21 periods, kept things consistent and shut teams down defensively the way they generally did in the playoffs last season - regardless of the shot totals. The important players showed up, for the most part, with Roman Hamrlik playing a staunch defensive game, Tomas Plekanec continuing to be one of the most consistent players in the entire league, and the Canadiens' 3rd "PhD" line stepping whenever there was a lack of production from the top two lines. (View the month's production chart at HabsWorld.net).
Yet none of this seemed applicable in the five losses. The Canadiens shut down, gave up, let the other team skate all over them. It's completely inexplicable.
There's really nothing wrong with the Canadiens record through the month of November, and I can't stress that enough. But the way the Habs lose is just frightening. It's as if they can't get any momentum going from their prior wins, as if those wins are so emotional, so draining that they simply have nothing left in the tank the next time they hit the ice. This was certainly the case in the game against the Flyers, which they started strong, just two days after an impressive 2-0 win over the Leafs, and six days after the 3-0 win over the Flyers at home.
In Columbus and in Atlanta, it was almost as if the lack of a crowd was the Canadiens demise against teams they don't really have any rivalry against, any real reason to get angry and perform the way they do against the top teams.
Is it a motivational issue? Is the coach unable to pump up his team when they need it the most? After all, we all know that the fans have expressed displeasure with the way Jacques Martin coaches sometimes, and thanks to a pleasing overall record, the Canadiens have had an inordinate amount of days off through two months of play.
Is it just a lack of depth, and an inability for the same players to bring it on every single night? No one expects Tomas Plekanec or Brian Gionta or Mike Cammalleri to score every game, but when they don't, it's almost as if they have no support from the rest of the team. Andrei Kostitsyn is hot and cold, he'll have the game of his life one night and then disappear for the next five nights. Scott Gomez is this close to driving half the city to madness. And while the PhD line of Pouliot, Halpern and Darche has stepped up when needed, there's only so much a third line can do, especially when the coach doesn't keep them together for every game anyway. Even Maxim Lapierre has stepped up on occasion, but he shouldn't be burdened with carrying this team's offense either.
Is it simply what's to be expected of this team? A good win followed by a bad loss, for the rest of the season? Should we just count our lucky stars and accept the fact that the wins are at least higher than the losses?
What other explanations are there for the Habs inconsistency this past month? Post your answers in the comments below!
IT WILL HAB-EN IN DECEMBER
Things don't get much easier for the Canadiens in December (find the schedule here). The Habs will play 15 games in 31 days, including three back-to-backs. Only five of the 15 games will be at home, thanks to the holiday road trip that has become standard for the Canadiens every season. In fact, it could be argued that December is actually the first big test of the season, not November, with more games to be played against some very good teams.
It begins with a home game against the lowly Oilers, which could either be a complete letdown, thanks to the win on Saturday, or a complete blowout like the Canadiens had against the Hurricanes. There's really no way to tell. The next night the Canadines travel to Newark to face the Devils, so I don't even want to talk about that. Saturday will be a rare afternoon game against the San Jose Sharks (why are they playing at 2PM against a Pacific team?).
Next week, the Habs welcome the Sens for the fourth meeting of the season between these two teams, and then go on the road for a back-to-back against Detroit on Friday, and Toronto on Saturday the 11th in a game that will be presented in 3D on CBC, and oddly enough the last Saturday night game they will play for the month.
The schedule gets a little weird here, as the Canadiens then have three days off before welcoming our good friends the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday the 15th, and then our even better friends the Boston Bruins the next night on Thursday.
On Sunday the 19th the Canadiens will visit recently traded defenseman Ryan O'Byrne in Colorado, in the first game of their road trip. They visit Dallas for a 9PM game on Tuesday, followed by Carolina on Thursday the 23rd, the most dreaded day on the calendar for Habs fans. While they defeated the Hurricanes last year on the same date, they hadn't won a game on December 23 since 1945.
A short two-day Christmas vacation is followed by another Sunday night game on the road, this time on Long Island, followed by the first meeting of the season between the Habs and the Caps, which should be a good one given what happened in last year's playoffs, and then a back-to-back in Tampa and Florida on the 30th and 31st to close out the Calendar year.
I hate to be negative, but it seems as if there could be a lot of letdown games on this month's schedule for the Canadiens. The calendar is well balanced between rival and non-rival teams, but with a lot of games on the road, and a rough road schedule, things could get a little dicey for the Canadiens, especially around the holidays. I'm going to try and be somewhat positive, and predict a 7-6-2 record for the Habs in the month of December, with most of the wins coming before the big Holiday road trip.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, it all starts with this week's back to back on Wednesday and Thursday against to teams that could be desperate for some wins. Moreover, with no major injuries outside of Andrei Markov, things could start getting a little dicey for the Canadiens if they should be unfortunate to suffer a couple of key injuries, especially on defense.
Then again, a strong team in Hamilton with several streaking players could just simply mean that they will finally get a chance to shine on a veteran team.
How do you think the Canadiens will fair in the tough month to come?
On a side note...
While it should be a day of congratulations and pride in Montreal, thanks to the Alouettes defeating the Saskatchewan Roughriders for a second Grey Cup in a row, our thoughts and prayers go out to quarterback Anthony Calvillo, who held back tears at last night's post-win press conference when he announced that he would be having surgery in the coming weeks to remove a lesion from his thyroid in his throat. The nature of the lesion is unknown, so we don't want to say the "C" word just yet, but only two years after Calvillo went through a similar ordeal with his wife, we can only say that we hope everything will be ok with AC. Here's to a full recovery and to an Als three-peat with Calvillo running the show yet again in 2011!
Go Als Go!
We'll be back with a liveblog for Wednesday's game versus the Oilers, so stay tuned for that and a big announcement from the TCL guys regarding a new venture, as well as the panelist announcements for this week's Habs Panel from Iain Carnegie!
Have a good week,