Montreal Canadiens' 5 Biggest Questions in Final Month of 2013-14 Season
The Montreal Canadiens have some big questions surrounding them as they head into the final month of the 2013-14 season.
The Habs are coming off a road trip that saw them win just one out of four games. Through 66 games, the team now sits one point behind Toronto for second in the Atlantic Division.
The final five weeks of the season will be a battle for the Canadiens. The Eastern Conference is tight. Every game can be considered a playoff game from here until the end of the season.
Things in Montreal are far from perfect as the end of the season approaches.
Goaltending is an issue all of a sudden, with Carey Price yet to play a game since the Olympic break. Peter Budaj and Dustin Tokarski haven't been good enough.
Injuries have also started taking their toll on the team. Josh Gorges is the latest member of the Habs to go down, joining a list that already includes Price, Brandon Prust and Michael Bournival.
The Canadiens have a few questions that need to be addressed. Their ability to deal with them will determine their fate this season.
Here are the Montreal Canadiens' five biggest questions in the final month of the 2013-14 season.
5. What's Up with Lars Eller?
To say that Lars Eller is just in a slump would be an understatement. He has hit rock bottom.
After such a promising start to the year, his 2013-14 season has become a nightmare. He has just one point in his last 23 games, and it was an assist. His last goal came on January 2.
He has fallen out of favor with the coaching staff, and he mostly has himself to blame for it after taking numerous penalties in the offensive zone. His confidence is at an all-time low, and it shows in the way he's playing the game.
Things have gotten so bad for Eller that he was actually made a healthy scratch in Anaheim on March 5.
The Canadiens need him to snap out of it, and soon.
He's their third-line center and capable of helping the team when he's on his game. He proved that with eight points in the first eight games of the season. He's also a solid contributor to the penalty kill.
Montreal is a better team with Eller in the lineup. Without him, the team turns to Daniel Briere as the third-line center. Briere is too small and needs to stay on the wing.
With the game out of hand in San Jose on March 8, Michel Therrien reunited Eller with his start-of-season linemates, Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk. The move was meant to see what Thomas Vanek would look like alongside David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, but the trickle-down effect gave Eller his old linemates back.
Montreal has yet to practice since returning from their road trip, so it remains to be seen if that was just a late-game move or something Therrien wants to try moving forward.
Perhaps putting the EGG line back together would get Eller out of his slump. Gallagher does seem to spark any line he's on.
Eller is an important part of the Canadiens lineup, but they need him to be a lot better. Improved play from the former first-round pick will certainly help Montreal's playoff chances.
4. Can They Survive Without Gorges?
The latest injury news out of Montreal is that defenseman Josh Gorges has a fractured left hand. He underwent surgery and will be out for four weeks, according to Canadiens.com.
Gorges is a top-four defenseman who logs important minutes alongside P.K. Subban. He leads the team, and is second in the entire NHL, with 173 blocked shots. He's also a vocal leader in the dressing room.
The Canadiens have allowed nine goals against in the two games since Gorges has been out of the lineup. It's a small sample size, but it's safe to say the squad is struggling to fill his void on the back end.
So who takes his place?
Jarred Tinordi was called upon to skate next to Subban in Phoenix and San Jose. He didn't exactly seize the opportunity, going minus-two while taking 19 minutes in penalties. He also made a crucial turnover that led to the fourth goal in the Phoenix game, putting the contest out of reach.
Newly acquired defenseman Mike Weaver will certainly receive a regular shift moving forward, although he seems more comfortable on the right side. He has looked decent playing next to Douglas Murray since being acquired.
Francis Bouillon, who hasn't played since February 8, could also find himself back in the mix. Montreal might also call someone up from Hamilton, and Nathan Beaulieu, Davis Drewiske and Greg Pateryn would all love opportunity.
The Canadiens have a huge hole to fill on defense, and how they deal with it will go a long way in determining if they make the playoffs. They certainly can't continue to give up 4.5 goals per game while Gorges is out.
3. Will Thomas Vanek Fit?
General manager Marc Bergevin pulled off a mini-miracle in acquiring Thomas Vanek just before the trade deadline last week. At least, that's how it felt for Montreal fans. The team had finally done something to help its chances this season.
Yet rental players often struggle when they are dealt to new teams late in the season. It's not easy to adapt to new coaching systems, and sometimes there's just no chemistry with new linemates.
Vanek has played just two games in Montreal, so it's unfair to judge him just yet. But wondering whether or not Vanek is a fit in Montreal is still a fair question.
He has, after all, struggled most of this season. The two-time 40-goal scorer has just 21 in 62 games this season. He also looked completely uninspired while representing Austria in Sochi.
In two games alongside Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta, it has been more of the same for Vanek. He has yet to record a point while registering four shots on goal. The line has been mostly invisible aside from a few power-play shifts.
This isn't to say that Vanek won't have a great finish to the season with Montreal. Perhaps the ovation he'll be given from 21,273 fans at the Bell Centre on March 12 will help spark him. Or maybe he'll remember that he is set to become an unrestricted free agent at season's end.
Montreal needs more offense, and it needs to come from Vanek. That's why he was brought in. His ability to fit in and score goals is a big question for Montreal down the stretch.
2. What Happened to the Power Play?
As a team that struggles to score even-strength goals, the Montreal Canadiens rely heavily on their power play. When it's cold, the team usually loses.
Before their recent Western U.S. road trip, the Canadiens beat the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Toronto Maple Leafs. The power play went 2-for-4 and 2-for-5, respectively.
Then the Habs traveled west for games in L.A., Anaheim, Phoenix and San Jose. They lost three of the four games. The power play? A combined 1-for-18, with the lone goal coming during a lengthy five-on-three.
The Canadiens cannot afford to go through prolonged power-play slumps during the final five weeks of the season. Their even-strength scoring simply can't make up for a lack of production with the man advantage.
Montreal needs to score three or more goals a game to win. It needs its power play to contribute at least one of those. If the Canadiens cannot find the back of the net while up a man, they could miss out on the playoffs.
1. Is Carey Price OK?
The health of Carey Price is clearly the Montreal Canadiens' biggest concern as the season winds down.
Price has not played since he aggravated a lower-body injury in his first practice after the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He is still considered day to day.
The Canadiens have gone 3-3-1 in Price's absence, though they have lost three of their last four. The team is giving up an average of 3.43 goals against per game without its star netminder, far above its season average of 2.47.
“Carey is our best player – he’s our most important player,” coach Michel Therrien told reporters after the San Jose game on March 8, per The Montreal Gazette.
Montreal needs Price between the pipes. Montreal cannot, and will not, succeed with Peter Budaj or Dustin Tokarski. The Canadiens simply aren't a good enough team to get by with average goaltending.
A healthy Price could carry this team deep into the playoffs. His health is Montreal's biggest question as we head into the final month of the 2013-14 season.