Top 5 Ways the Montreal Canadiens Can Get Back on Track Before 2014 Playoffs

Ryan SzporerContributor IIIMarch 15, 2014

Top 5 Ways the Montreal Canadiens Can Get Back on Track Before 2014 Playoffs

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    Boston Bruins forwards Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron celebrate a goal against the Montreal Canadiens.
    Boston Bruins forwards Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron celebrate a goal against the Montreal Canadiens.Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

    Three straight losses have dropped the Montreal Canadiens down to a wild-card spot as they prep for the 2014 playoffs. While the modest skid is pretty bad on its own, it has incomprehensibly coincided with Thomas Vanek’s insertion into the lineup. It’s enough to send most Habs fans spiralling into existential crises.

    After all, this is player that was supposed to make the Habs better, but how can an 0-3 stretch possibly be interpreted as better than the 6-1-1 record the team had posted in its previous eight games?

    Is “down” now “up”? How is Devan Dubnyk all of a sudden a goalie worth acquiring? And how has he been able to impersonate Peter Budaj for the past week and a half without anyone realizing? Just what is the reason for the platypus? Same question, but replace platypus with Rene Bourque. Why does all this matter? Where am I???

    Facing a very real risk of losing all sense of self and reality, fans must come to grips with the fact these three games do not necessarily mean the end of the world (or the Habs’ season). Not by a long shot.

    Here are the top five ways the Canadiens can get back on track before the playoffs:

5. Get Better Goaltending

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    Montreal Canadiens goaltender Peter Budaj before getting pulled against the San Jose Sharks.
    Montreal Canadiens goaltender Peter Budaj before getting pulled against the San Jose Sharks.Don Smith/Getty Images

    As alluded to in the first slide, the Habs need better goaltending in general, whether it be from Budaj, Dustin Tokarski or, ideally, the injured Carey Price (or, God help Habs fans, Dubnyk).

    Budaj, for example, is now sporting a .907 save percentage when he had one of .927 at the end of February, after allowing 21 goals in his last six games, with the last four being losses.

    Delving deeper, in his last game against Boston, he gave up a few questionable goals, including a backbreaker to Milan Lucic that put the Bruins up 3-0 just as the Habs had been gaining momentum.

    Meanwhile, even though Tokarski has played decently in relief of Budaj (in some instances literally, with Budaj actually getting the hook against the San Jose Sharks), his goals-against average, albeit after just two appearances, is hovering around three (2.91). That’s not good enough if the Habs want to regain one of the top two seeds in the Atlantic Division.

    Rumors are swirling, at least rumors being spread by CTV News in Montreal, that Price could return as soon as Saturday night against the Ottawa Senators. Whenever he does eventually get back, it won’t be soon enough.

4. Get Healthy

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    Montreal Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges.
    Montreal Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges.Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

    Yes, Price needs to get healthy, but so does defenseman Josh Gorges (and forward Michael Bournival too). While it’s true that the start of the Habs’ current three-game losing streak coincided with Thomas Vanek’s debut, it also did with the first game Gorges missed due to a broken hand.

    Gorges logs an average of 21:13 each game, good for third best on the Habs behind Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban. For a team with a lot of defensive problems (30.5 shots against per game for starters), those are minutes you can’t really replace by committee, as that committee’s already stretched too thin.

    For example, against the San Jose Sharks, the recently acquired Mike Weaver had 18:21 of ice time (fourth-most amount among defensemen). Now, Weaver has a reputation of being a very good depth defenseman, but the key word there is “depth."

    If you’re forced into using him regularly it points to bigger problems. Enter Douglas Murray—the 6’3”, 240-pound defenseman who’s minus-15 on the year and ended up playing over 17 minutes that game. Yada, yada, yada, the Habs lost that game 4-0.

    Thankfully, against Boston, head coach Michel Therrien was able to limit Murray to 13 minutes of ice time. However, that meant his missing minutes had to go to someone else.

    As usual, Markov led the Habs in ice time with 24:14. However, Francis Bouillon—not Subban or Alexei Emelin or even Jarred Tinordi—had the second-most amount with 23:12. To put it in perspective, Bouillon averages 17:14 per game…when he’s lucky to get in the lineup.

    Among defensemen who have been with the Habs all year, Bouillon has played the least number of games, 39. Even Murray has played 46. There’s just no good excuse Therrien can think up to give Bouillon that amount of ice time…were it not for Gorges’ injury.

    Get well soon, Josh. Really soon.

3. Promote Beaulieu…Again

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    Montreal Canadiens defenseman Nathan Beaulieu.
    Montreal Canadiens defenseman Nathan Beaulieu.Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images

    Also in that 4-1 loss to Boston on Wednesday night, Bouillon had 1:54 of power-play time. That’s kind of a lot for a guy with just one power-play assist over the last three seasons (averaging a hearty 1:24 per game with the man advantage this year, no less). Seeing as that one assist came this season, it’s not like he’s due to break out with another until 2020.

    What is Therrien thinking? It’s not like Bouillon is some secret weapon that he can deploy on the power play to lull the opposition into a false sense of security. In fact, over the last three games, the Habs are 1-15 with the man advantage, and that one goal came against the Coyotes when Bouillon wasn’t even dressed.

    For the record, 1-15 works out to a pitiful 6.7 percent success rate, which is significantly lower than the 18.6 percent the Habs’ already-struggling power-play unit has been able to manage all season.

    If only they had another left-shooting defenseman other than Bouillon at their disposal, someone, preferably, who didn’t continually throw the hockey equivalent of air balls whenever he has the puck.

    That someone could be current Hamilton Bulldog Nathan Beaulieu (or literally any other defenseman on the roster not named Subban or Weaver—who are both right-handed shots—or Douglas Murray, who shoots left but has just one power-play assist in his last four seasons).

    It just makes no sense to keep Beaulieu, who’s projected to become an elite puck-moving defenseman, in the minors when the team’s power play and offense is this dried up. Bring him up to Montreal, pronto.

2. Put Vanek with Plekanec

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    Montreal Canadiens forward Thomas Vanek in front of Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.
    Montreal Canadiens forward Thomas Vanek in front of Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

    In the Canadiens' last game before Vanek joined, the Habs beat the Anaheim Ducks 4-3. In the three games since his debut, they’ve scored just three times, at one point going over two games without a goal. Obviously something needs to change, but let’s not get crazy.

    If practice is anything to go by, Therrien’s latest solution is to break up the line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher, according to CTV. That has been Montreal’s most successful line combination all season, so, logically—at least according to Therrien’s logic—it needs to go.

    This brand of common sense is nothing new. After starting Vanek off on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta with little to no success, Therrien got antsy and figured, obviously, that the most talented player of the three, Vanek, was the problem.

    As a result of Vanek’s shift to the first line, Therrien has moved Brendan Gallagher back to the third line with Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk.

    While reuniting Gallagher with Eller and Galchenyuk isn’t all that bad of a move in theory, one of the only reasons he was moved to the Desharnais line in the first place was because the ”EGG” line had lost its mojo.

    Prior to breaking out with two points against the Minnesota Wild in late November after being moved to that top unit, Gallagher had scored just seven points over the previous 16 games. Eller had just six points over the same time span. Similarly, Galchenyuk had just eight points in his previous 17.

    Needless to say, they weren’t the same line that had combined for 18 points over the first four games of the season. As such, reuniting them isn’t likely to instantly rekindle any chemistry as there had been close to nil when they last played together.

    Meanwhile, putting all of his other eggs in one basket by playing Vanek with Pacioretty—two trigger men—is unlikely to generate any long-term chemistry at all.

    Sure, that line combination was the one responsible for the lone goal the Habs scored against the Bruins, but it was hardly a work of art. It was a goal-mouth scramble on which Montreal got lucky. Really, the Habs actually showed the most offensive flair at the start the game and just before Milan Lucic made it 3-0 when Vanek was on the ice and had yet to be moved off the Plekanec line.

    The real logical thing to do is to finally give Plekanec someone decent to play with, because he’s better than the 35 points he’s scored up to this point this season. At 35 years of age, meanwhile, Gionta’s actually worse than his 31 points and probably belongs on the third line where Eller and Galchenyuk’s big bodies can give him more space to go to the net.

1. Keep Lines Intact Once They’re Set (Patience)

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    Montreal Canadiens coaches Gerard Gallant and Michel Therrien.
    Montreal Canadiens coaches Gerard Gallant and Michel Therrien.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Therrien must realize that chemistry doesn’t develop instantly and he’s not doing anyone any favors by continuing to juggle his lines. All that does is force players to constantly get used to new linemates. It’s not exactly a key to success.

    One would think he would have figured that out by now seeing as he’s seemingly made a hobby since the start of the season out of throwing darts at the team photo to see who draws into which line.

    The team has been just barely getting by as a result of his methods, regularly getting outshot and outchanced. After one of the few times they actually play better than an elite opponent (Boston) and unfortunately lose, he feels the need to go back to the drawing/dart board.

    In summation, he shouldn’t force matters when he doesn’t get the results he wants immediately. The acquisition of Vanek does improve his club, but the only good trying out every possible line combination does is reveal his own shortcomings as head coach. And, as much as a coaching change may be beneficial to the long-term success of the team, it just wouldn’t be right now.

    Getting rid of Therrien may very well be worth considering at the end of the season, but with just 15 games left, it’s not worth the resulting distraction. And to his credit he does have the Habs holding down a playoff spot with a four-point cushion between them and the ninth-place Detroit Red Wings.

    Put simply, it’s no time to panic.

    And all this holds true for Habs fans, too. While the team has indeed lost three straight and has fallen into the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card spot, there is a lot of hockey left to be played, during which the Habs can realistically make up the ground they’ve lost.

    With 13 of their last 15 games within the conference, a conference against which the Habs are 22-13-6 this season, all is far from lost.