We love our hockey team in Montreal.
With a contentious and, for a good portion of the population, ominous election looming, fans braved a late-winter snowstorm to welcome their beloved Canadiens back to the Bell Centre.
The white stuff won’t last.
And loyalty to the beloved Canadiens was unshaken by the team’s third straight loss, 4-1 to the hated Bruins.
But as you look at that photo of fans congregating in outside the Bell Centre, ask yourself whether this team will still be playing when the snow melts.
And for how long.
Forget the glass-half-full malarkey.
You can’t put a positive spin on the Canadiens’ recent results.
They haven’t won a game in regulation time since before the Olympics.
Their only win on the recent road trip was against Anaheim – which, their lofty point total notwithstanding, lost at home to the Leafs and got smoked in Calgary.
It has been obvious for a couple weeks now that the Canadiens can’t win without Carey Price. And the condition of Team Canada’s gold-medal goaltender is a mystery.
Price has what’s officially described as a lower-body injury. He has not played a game since Sochi, and Price’s return to practice this week has been confined to some light drills with goaltending coach Stéphane Waite.
Informed speculation – if that isn’t an oxymoron – has Price battling a groin injury. The healing process cannot be rushed, and a premature return to action might jeopardize the future of the Canadiens’ most valuable player.
The Canadiens are still six points clear of ninth-place Detroit. but the Red Wings have two games in hand.
My friends in the Bell Centre pressbox tell me the Canadiens are a lock for the playoffs. Given their cushion and the availability of loser’s points down the stretch, they’ll probably get into the postseason … if only as a wild-card.
But the upcoming schedule is not easy.
Ottawa, desperate for points in pursuit of a playoff spot, visits the Bell Centre Saturday night. The Senators have won two of the teams’ three meetings this season.
On Sunday, the Canadiens play in Buffalo, against a Sabres team that is out of the playoff hunt and loosey-goosey.
Then patrick Roy brings the Avalanche to the Bell Centre next Tuesday night, followed by surging Columbus on Thursday. The Canadiens then visit Toronto on March 22 and Boston on the 24th.
If the Canadiens play like they did for the first 20 minutes against the Bruins, this schedule will be manageable – the more so if Price is available.
But if they play like they did in the second period against Boston …
The Canadiens outshot Boston 14-6 in that first period and 36-32 on the game. They won 62 per cent of the faceoffs. Boston outhit them, but only by a 29-26 margin.
The Bruins blocked 18 shots, to 13 for the Canadiens. And the home team managed to miss the net with 19 shots, to only six misses for Boston.
The latter stat is, to me, indicative of the Canadiens’ lack of confidence in the offensive zone. The team is not scoring, they’re squeezing their sticks and shots are all over the place.
Exhibit A: Tomas Plekanec, 0 SoG, four misses. His linemate, Brian Gionta, had two shots on Rask and missed the net three times.
Max Pacioretty, by contrast, had six shots on goal to lead both teams. Another three were blocked by white-shirted defenders. Max did not miss the net once.
In the third period, with the game out of reach, Michel Therrien moved Thomas Vanek to the David Desharnais line, with Pacioretty. They produced the only goal, and Vanek was the only Canadien who was plus-1 on the game – a distinction that hardly justified his selection as Third Star.
Brendan Gallagher was reunited with Alex Galchenyuk, who made some pretty plays in the game, and poor Lars Eller, who took yet another penalty and has not been on the scoresheet since Feb. 9.
Of Eller’s 10 goals this season, five were scored in the first five games. We can hope that a reconstituted EGG line might start clicking, but Eller is a mess.
Like Galchenyuk and, recently, P.K. Subban, Eller is not playing as well as he did last season. Their struggles make you wonder about the ability of Therrien and his staff to develop young talent.
Gallagher is the exception, but he’d play well for Barry Melrose.
Not to worry, though. The coach somehow managed to play Francis Bouillon more even-strength minutes than any other Canadiens’ defenceman.
Frankie the Bull was not the home team’s worst defenceman. That dubious distinction belongs to Douglas Murray, who had a grand total of ZERO hits against the Bruins.
Enough already! Bring up Nathan Beaulieu and/or Greg Pateryn.
Ottawa on Saturday.
Be very afraid.