Remember when your 2013 Montreal Canadiens were a great first-period team?
Through the first 40 games of their season, the Canadiens opened the scoring 28 times.
Through the last six: Once, against Tampa Bay at the Bell Centre last Thursday, when Alex Galchenyuk put his team on the board four minutes into the game.
On the other five occasions, the Canadiens’ opponent has scored first – most recently, Tuesday night in New Jersey.
And the team trailing early – namely the Canadiens – has lost five times.
The Devils led 2-0 at the end of the first period, and the Canadiens maintained their perfect record: They have not won this season when trailing after 20 minutes.
For all the amazing things the Canadiens have accomplished this season – and their recent travails notwithstanding, let’s not lose sight of the fact they have exceeded the expectations of all but their most delusional fans – this is not a great comeback team.
They are 0-7-1 when trailing after one period, 3-12-1 when trailing after two.
Good starts are crucial for this team. And for the last two weeks, the Canadiens have been starting badly.
At least Carey Price wasn’t the problem in New Jersey. The Canadiens’ beleaguered goaltender had no chance on the Patrik Elias power-play goal that opened the scoring. Nor could you fault him for the Steve Sullivan goal – again on a Devils’ PP – that made it 3-0.
Price was deep in his net and probably down too early on the Jacob Josefson goal from in-close. But compared to his recent nightmarish starts, Price played a decent game.
A more high-scoring team than the Devils – say Pittsburgh, or Washington – would have buried the Canadiens early in this one. As has been the case through the slump, an aggressive forecheck produced disarray in the defensive zone throughout the first period. New Jersey’s big forwards mauled the Canadiens’ undersized – and, in the case of Andrei Markov – immobile defence. And there was little help from backcheckers.
The swarming, five-skaters-on-the-puck that propelled the Canadiens to unlikely success seems to have deserted the team. Maybe opponents have adjusted … though you have to wonder why it took them 40 games to do so. Or perhaps, as some have suggested, the Michel Therrien system is too demanding for a physically small team.
Whatever the explanation, the Canadiens’ speed and dogged pursuit of the puck have deserted them.
There is solace to be drawn from the comeback that turned a 3-0 deficit into a game in New Jersey. Max Pacioretty had a good game, with five shots on Martin F. Brodeur and a couple of hits. Lars Eller scored and worked well with Rene Bourque, who joined Eller and Alex Galchenyuk when Michel Therrien moved Michael Ryder back to Tomas Plekanec’s line.
On the back end, I thought P.K. Subban played a more controlled and effective game than he had during some recent losses. And Raphael Diaz showed signs of rounding into form.
But man, that D misses the physicality of Alexei Emelin. The defencemen are small, they’re soft and they’re getting mauled. And just wait until the refs put their whistles away for the playoffs.
Brandon Prust, the straw who stirred the drink through the first three months of the season, is playing hurt. Prust had 11 minutes of ice time against the Devils. He had no hits and took two penalties.
Brenden Gallagher looks tired. Ryder didn’t have a SoG against the Devils. Colby Armstrong had one hit.
The Canadiens “won” the second half of the game. But the scoreboard showed yet another loss … and this was the most winnable game of the week.
In Winnipeg on Thursday, the Canadiens will play a Jets team fighting for its postseason life. Then the regular season wraps up in Toronto on Saturday night.
And how’s this for a Hockey Night in Canada dream scenario:
The right combination of losses by the Canadiens and Boston, which is also fading badly, and Toronto wins could have the Leafs moving into the Northeast Division lead on Saturday night.
Wouldn’t that be something to warm the black hearts of all those HNIC Leaf-blowers?
And let’s not even think about what that would do to the battered and bruised psyches of Canadiens fans, who are watching their beloved team stumble and bumble their way to a choke job for the ages.
We’ve all heard the cliché “there’s still a lot of hockey to be played” – a rationalization generally offered in late February by a coach who gets fired two days after saying it.
Well, there isn’t a lot of hockey left. The Canadiens play two more regular-season games – against opponents more potent than a New Jersey team that’s out of the playoffs.
In his postgame remarks, Michel Therrien said Xs and Os constitute 50 per cent of a hockey team’s effort. The rest, the coach said, is “intensity … putting on your workboots.”
Therrien’s team showed signs of recapturing that intensity during the last 30 minutes of the game in New Jersey. The Canadiens will need another 120 minutes of total effort to avoid embarrassment in Winnipeg and Toronto.