It’s no secret the Montreal Canadiens have had trouble in recent games, so much so that they haven’t looked like a playoff team, much less the one that has led the Northeast Division for much of the season.
However, with a berth long since secured, it’s far from the end of the world.
Prior to Thursday night’s 3-2 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning, in which the Habs still gave up a two-goal lead and then needed not one, but two late power plays to win, the Habs had lost three straight. Well, maybe “lost” isn’t the right word. “Got blown out in,” maybe? "Reamed"? "Humiliated"? Stop me at any time, please.
Let’s look at the facts (those who are especially sensitive to graphic imagery may want to skip over this part). In consecutive losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Habs:
- Gave up the first two goals before each game was 10 minutes old.
- Ended up pulling the starting goalie (yes, in all three games).
- Got outscored by a total of 18-8.
Keep in mind, prior to those three games, the Habs led the league in games in which they scored first (28), had pulled their goalie just once before, and averaged under 2.40 goals against per game this season.
Needless to say, these past few weeks haven't been pleasant.
Many trace the sudden slide (or nosedive, if you’re a stickler for accuracy) to the season-ending knee injury to defenseman Alexei Emelin, who served as a stabilizing, stay-at-home presence for fellow Russian Andrei Markov, had also been contributing offensively with 12 points and more importantly led the team with 110 hits in 38 games.
Davis Drewiske, recently acquired from the Los Angeles Kings, has filled in admirably for Emelin—at least from an offensive standpoint, putting up three points in nine games. However, despite being the same size as Emelin, it clearly just isn’t the same, and I’m not just talking about the lack of a language barrier.
Translation: Whereas Emelin had been averaging around three hits per game, Drewiske has just eight total.
In fact, there is so much of a drop-off between Emelin’s physicality and that of the rest of the team that Erik Cole actually would be the Canadien with the next-highest amount of hits had he not been traded to the Dallas Stars for sucking so much. He has 90. Brandon Prust has 78. Lower-pairing defenseman Francis Bouillon now leads all healthy blueliners with 73.
So, analysts can be forgiven for assuming that, once Emelin ran into Boston Bruin Milan Lucic doing his best brick-wall impression on April 6, Montreal’s Stanley Cup hopes shattered as well.
However, at the end of the day, Montreal is likely just going through an adjustment period…yes, an incredibly painful and unusually embarrassing adjustment period. Think puberty with a lot fewer wet dreams—at least one would hope.
In any case, Emelin is just one man who was playing around 20 minutes each game and, with all due respect to Montreal and the team’s fans, the Habs stunk for much more than one-third of each game they lost over the last two weeks.
Think of it like this: Emelin is undeniably a valuable physical presence on a team that doesn’t play a physical game. However, it’s not as if Montreal is losing all that dominating of a player, at least not one in the same vein as a Matt Martin, who leads the league with 216 hits—over 100 more than Emelin.
In fact, Emelin just barely made the top 30 before getting injured.
While physical play is no doubt important come the playoffs, it’s not everything and worrisome Habs fans should consider this: As hot as the Islanders have been, how likely is it that they make it out of the first round, even with Martin? They very well may, but it would be a huge, unforeseeable upset to say the least.
Emelin, as great as he is, is hardly to Montreal what Sidney Crosby is to the Pittsburgh Penguins. And the Pens, in case you forgot (sorry to remind you), destroyed Montreal just last week with both him and Evgeni Malkin injured.
Granted, that loss was in large part at the hands of the extra players Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero acquired at the trade deadline, planning for just such a contingency while Marc Bergevin largely stood still, clearly missing an opportunity to add much-needed depth.
However, at the end of the day, Montreal is just one player removed from the team that was 22-7-5 at the start of April. Speaking in net terms, the Habs aren’t down any men at all.
Let’s not forget, Rene Bourque (34 hits in 23 games), almost as big a body as Emelin, missed close to two months and the Habs didn’t miss a beat, going 14-4-3. And now his return should at least slightly compensate for the injury to Emelin.
The fact remains, during their worst stretch of the season (Montreal has yet to lose four straight this season), the Habs are still 5-5 in their last 10 games. Even with the three horrific losses, Montreal is still in a great position to earn home-ice advantage during the playoffs, where anything can happen.
For example, even if the Habs had chosen to go 5-5 in their last 10 games of the season, iincluding a hypothetical, particularly heartbreaking final game that saw them give up a third-period lead, lose in overtime and somehow enter the playoffs as an eighth seed, momentum isn’t everything. They could still theoretically win it all.
I know this because the exact same thing happened last year to the 2012 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
Yes, the Kings were a physical, gritty team that grinded out victories and was built for a playoff run. However, as argued above, Montreal is still the same legit threat in the East it was one month ago.
All teams go through slumps. Unfortunately for Montreal, the Habs just picked a really bad time to go through theirs and it cost them a potential No. 1 seed. That they can still win the division is a testament to their play over the entire season, a season that is still as of yet unfinished.
If that season as a whole is any indication, it's very, very far from over too.