Montreal-Dallas: Stars Too Bright For Sloppy Habs

Kamal PanesarCorrespondent IDecember 22, 2010

DALLAS, TX - DECEMBER 21:  Left wing Brenden Morrow #10 of the Dallas Stars celebrates a goal in front of Carey Price #31 of the Montreal Canadiens at American Airlines Center on December 21, 2010 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Two days after skunking a game in Colorado, the Habs were back on the horse to try to turn their fortunes around in Dallas against the Stars last night. Unfortunately for Habs' fans, the Canadiens dropped another stink bomb to keep their streak of futility going.

Aside from a few decent shifts and a couple of scoring chances, the Habs had a lot of difficulty getting setup in the Stars' zone for most of the game. When they were able to get setup they were usually firing the puck wide or over the net, missing passes, fanning on shots and missing empty nets.

Despite their offensive shortcomings, however, the Habs' downfall took place in their defensive zone as they were not working as that stereotypical Jacques Martin five-man unit. Instead, they were chaotic, missing assignments, turning the puck over and otherwise making things hard on themselves.

Price did his best to stop the Stars but he was not in prime form last night.

While a couple of the goals were deflected past him, a few of the five that the Stars scored—on only 17 total shots in the game—were shots that Price would have liked to have back. Ultimately, however, the team in front of him neither provided enough offense nor did they play well defensively, meaning the Price was left to his own devices on too many occasions.

Missed assignments, odd-man rushes and bad turnovers meant that Price didn't have a lot of chance of stopping most of the goals.

The turning point of the game was when Benoit Pouliot whiffed on a perfect pass from Maxim Lapierre while staring at an empty net during the second period. That goal would have made it 3-2 Dallas and could have changed the complexion of the game.

Instead, Brad Richards potted his 16th of the season on the power play a few minutes later and that was all she wrote.

Final Score: Stars 5 - Habs 2

Habs' scorers: Mathieu Darche (6), Brian Gionta (12)
Stars' scorers: Adam Burish (4), Jamie Benn (8), Karlis Skrastins (2), Brad Richards (16), Loui Eriksson (15)

Three stars: 1. Jamie Benn, 2. Kari Lehtonen, 3. Steve Ott

Game Notes

1. The Habs made too many mistakes.

The Habs have been making mistakes on the ice all season long but Carey Price has always been there to cover them up. Over the last 10 or so games, the mistakes that they are making are coming back to bite them in the butt.

At the beginning of the season, Carey Price was stopping everything that was thrown his way. But, as I pointed out in the Avs post game article, Price has let in one weak goal in each of the past three games. Moreover, he is not stopping all of the breakaways and turnover related chances that he was over the first 20 or so games of the season. As such, the Canadiens are falling behind on the scoreboard when they are not playing well as opposed to escaping with a 0-0 tie.

Despite their 40 points in the standings, the Habs are sputtering right now and Jacques Martin does not seem to have the answers.

While it is still way too early to push the panic button and things could turn around in an instant, the Habs are 1-5 in their last six games and 4-6 in their last ten games.

That trend is decidedly negative.

2. Jacques Martin does not have the answers.

With over 1000 games coached in the NHL, Jacques Martin has seen all kinds of game situations. As such, you would expect that he should be able to come up with solutions to get his floundering team back on track.

Last night he benched Andrei Kostitsyn—after he had a sequence of zero goals over nine games—he switched Lars Eller to the wing on the top line with Tomas Plekanec and Michael Cammalleri, he scratched Yannick Weber again, he shuffled the bottom-six and yet, no change in the result on the ice.

Moreover, the only line that was producing anything last night was the Scott Gomez line—with Brian Gionta and Max Pacioretty. The bottom-six, once a source of depth and strength for the Habs, was completely invisible until the Mathieu Darche goal.

The problem with the Canadiens is that the way the team is constructed and the system that Jacques Martin employs, depend to an obscenely large extent on how well Price is playing. If he lets in a weak goal or isn't able to cover up for all of the bad turnovers that the Habs commit, they tend to lose the game.

This is not a recipe for long term success and Martin needs to stop juggling the lines so much and get back to what works.

Cammalleri, Plekanec and Kostitsyn have chemistry, so put them back together.

Pouliot, Darche and Jeff Halpern played excellent hockey together at the beginning of the season, so put them back together.

The end result would be the following lineup:


You could likely switch up Eller and Halpern with no real discernible difference.

The problems with the team are not Andrei Kostitsyn's fault, or Benoit Pouliot's or anyone else's in particular for that matter. The Habs are simply playing a low percentage system that only works if the goaltender is playing out of his mind. If he has an average night, chances are the team will lose.

3. The second line is the only one that is going right now.

Pacioretty, Gionta and Gomez continue to play excellent hockey together and provided the only real offensive spark last night. More importantly, MaxPac continues to be the straw that stirs that drink.

His enthusiasm is contagious on that line and they look fast, skilled and dangerous almost every time they step on the ice. They are making things happen because they are constantly in motion, usually connecting on their passes, throwing body checks—well at least Pacioretty is—and always going to the net.

The thing that I like the most about Pacioretty is that when he doesn't have the puck, he is always in front of the net and his big frame is tough for opposing defenders to move.

The result is usually a bevy of scoring chances, rebounds and deflections opportunities. If he can keep it up and can start putting the puck in the net on a regular basis that line should remain a key cog in the Canadiens' offense for years to come.

4. Price wasn't great.

Over the last five of so games, Price hasn't been the miracle-maker that he was during the first 25. Since the Habs system places so much weight on the goaltender's shoulders and Price has not been shutting down the opposition lately, they are now losing more games than they are winning.

That sounds an awful lot like the formula the Habs employed in last year's playoffs. It is a formula that is only as successful as the strength of your goalie and, if he is not playing out of his mind bad things can happen.

Bad things like, say, losing two games in a row and five out of their last six.

It is asking too much of any goaltender that he be required to be perfect, night in and night out, or else a loss is pretty much guaranteed. Carey Price has bailed his team out on many occasions this season.

Isn't it about time they returned the favour?

5. The Habs defense has gone AWOL.

In the first 28 games of the season the Habs gave up four or more goals only two times. In the last six games it has happened three times.

As much as Price hasn't looked his sharpest recently hockey is a team game, and when goals are going in in bunches it speaks to a general defensive malaise across the team.

Considering Jacques Martin's philosophy of having a five-man unit working in each zone, the players in front of Price are just not getting it done. With over 900 giveaways so far this season—second only to the Oilers—the lapses start with the forwards and are being compounded by the defense.

Last night the Canadiens were playing like individuals in their defensive zone doubling up their defensive coverage on certain individuals while leaving others uncovered, scrambling to get into position and ultimately not being able to move players out from in front of the net or defend with any authority.

Jacques Martin has a team that is built off of defense—evidenced by his continuous use of the one-man forecheck even when they were down by three goals in the third period. If the team is not getting it done defensively, then what do they have going for them?

Moreover, if being a defensive team means that they actually don't play well defensively but rather rely on their goaltender to bail them out over and over, then what is their real identity?

An average team with an exceptional goaltender?

As much as Martin has been riding and benching certain players, the spotlight must now be shone in his direction this morning and he has to start finding some answers.

I remember a few years ago there was this nice guy, named Guy, who didn't have the answers after a loss in Dallas. That guy didn't last too much longer behind the Canadiens' bench.

Standings and Next Game

The loss keeps the Habs stalled at 40 points with a 19-13-2 record. The Boston Bruins are still two points back of the Canadiens with 38 points and two games in hand. The ironic thing here is that while the Habs are camped out in third place overall in the East, if they are passed by the Bruins they will sudden find themselves in eighth.

The Habs now travel to Raleigh to take on the Hurricanes on Thursday night.

With the team on a two-game losing streak and with the Canes only six points behind them in the standings, the Canadiens would do well to pull out a win. A loss to the Canes would allow Carolina to pull within four points of the Habs in the standings, with two games in hand.

It is definitely way too early to push the panic button in Montreal, but it is time for the team to turn things around. There is a lot of character in that dressing room and it is time for the leaders on this team to lead them out of the abyss.

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