Montreal Canadiens Come Out of the All-Star Break Rested and Reinvigorated

Scott WeldonCorrespondent IFebruary 5, 2011

Montreal Canadiens Come Out of the All-Star Break Rested and Reinvigorated

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    Only Carey Price will appear at the All-Star game in Raleigh for the Montreal Canadiens. The rest of the team has six full days off before they have to be in Washington to face the Capitals. Rest, relaxation and recuperation should be the order of day for that entire time.

    Some of the players that are dinged up, like Max Pacioretty and Jeff Halpern, will have the time to heal. The long term injuries, Josh Jorges, Andrei Markov and Mike Cammalleri, get a week where their absence doesn't hurt the team.

    Unfortunately, the busiest player in Montreal, Carey Price, will be busy all weekend with the All-Star game and the festivities surrounding it.  

    This is a quick look at how the Habs look right now coming out of the All-Star break. 

Goaltending

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    Goaltending in general and Carey Price specifically were the biggest question marks coming in to this season. Price had been handed the starting job in the past and lost it. The Jaroslav Halak trade left the team no other options if Carey proved incapable of being the starter again in Montreal. 

    So far, so good. Price is the busiest goalie in hockey. His 2,665 minutes played put him ahead of warhorses like Miikka Kiprusoff and Jonas Hiller. He's maintaining a .920 save percentage, which has him tied for ninth among goalies who have played at least 1800 minutes (30 full games) so far this season. He's not leading the league, but he's in a group with Sergei Bobrovsky in Philadelphia, Jonathon Quick in LA and Cam Ward in Carolina. 

    His 2.36 goals against average has him seventh in the same group of goalies. The team is seventh in the number of goals against per game in the league, while being 13th in the number of shots they give up in a game. The goaltending is making a valuable contribution in Montreal.  

    His four shut-outs have him in a log-jam at fifth best in the league. He's third in the league in shots against and saves, though that tends to come with the territory when you play as much as he does.  

    The under-utilized Alex Auld still has maintained great numbers while playing less then most other backups in the league. The team has played well in front of Auld and it would be nice to see him get in more games as the playoffs approach.  

    Carey Price has been in this position before and then crumbled. Despite a few bad moments in the preseason and early in this season, Price's confidence seems fine. He has been giving up weak goals recently, but it doesn't seem to effect his peace of mind. He loves to handle the puck, but he seems to have become a little more discerning about when and where to do so.

    A Carey Price with no real replacement in the wings has seemed more confident and less ready to crumble after a bad goal or a bad game. Now if he does crumble or get injured, the Canadiens have no real replacement. Montreal needs a healthy, rested Price to make it in to the playoffs and to do anything while there.    

Defense

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    One of the biggest weaknesses in Montreal last year was the defense. The Canadiens had an aging, often injured group that gave up a Florida-esque 32.1 shots per game. This was the fourth worst total in the league. 

    A lot of the same characters are involved this year. Andrei Markov is on the long term injury list again this year. Josh Gorges, who was a rock on defense last year in Montreal, is missing with a knee injury this season. Yet this group is doing a much better job defensively than last year's set of defensemen. 

    The Montreal defense last year featured three of the league leaders in giveaways. Roman Hamrlik was third, Jaroslav Spacek was fourth and Hal Gill was eighth in the league in giveaways. Perhaps it was the successful playoff run, perhaps the veterans have started listening to their coach, but whatever has happened, they have cleaned things up in their own zone. Jaroslav Spacek is the worst on the team so far this year with 47 giveaways. That's only 18th worst in the league, a marked improvement. The high risk PK Subban has a mere 27 giveaways and balances that out with 19 takeaways of his own.

    This year, two of the three defensemen currently getting the most minutes per game are new aquisition James Wisniewski and PK Subban. Hamrlik, while still getting first pair minutes, is playing almost two minutes a game less than last year. The defense has fallen on the shoulders of seven guys after the two big injuries and there are no bit-players like there were last year. Alex Picard plays the least when he plays and he still plays over 16 minutes a game.

    The Canadiens' defensive forwards Jeff Halpern, Travis Moen et al have been as good or better than last year's checkers. The loss of erratic hitter Maxim Lapierre has not impacted the team at all.

    A more responsible defensive Canadien team seems to be listening closer to what coach Jacques Martin is telling them. Success in the playoffs will tend to do that for you. This was a team last year that gave up too many shots on goal in the regular season and even during their successful playoff run. This year's tighter defense is helping goalie Carey Price and the team itself to succeed.         

Offense

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    The weakest part of the team so far has been the offense. Like last year, they have struggled to score. The team appears to be generating more offense. They have taken four more shots a game all season, but they are still 21st in the league in goals for, tied with the Minnesota Wild at 134. They are 24th in the league in goals per game and even strength goals.

    The loss of the team's best offensive player, Mike Cammalleri, has hurt the offense. The power play has suffered in his absence. He's skating on his own, but is not ready to play this weekend. The Canadiens' need him healthy and can't have him getting hurt again before the playoffs.

    The offense is being lead by the skilled playmaker Tomas Plekanec. His 42 points in 51 games are good ,but in the entire league puts him at 36th overall, tied with the Leafs' Clarke MacArthur. After Plekanec, it's Brian Gionta having a Cy Young season (19 G, 9 A) and Andrei Kostitsyn having a streaky 29 points in 51 games in his contract year.

    New defenseman James Wisniewski has the second most points on the team with 34. The rest of the Canadiens' forwards have offensive numbers you would expect from a good checking forward, around a half point a game. None of the youngsters brought up so far from the AHL club have made a significant offensive contribution.

    Lars Eller has been given a good shot at making the team because he was the return for the sainted Jaroslav Halak. He looks good and elements of his game are top-notch. His offensive skills, however, seem to require a little more seasoning in the AHL. In 48 games this year, Eller has eight points. His shot might charitably be called marginally harder than Scott Gomez's.

    Max Pacioretty is the one exception. He has managed six sometimes timely goals and 13 points in his 22 games in Montreal this year. That puts him ahead of all the prospects and a lot of the veterans in the lineup on a point per game basis.

    The Canadiens desperately need a top six forward, preferably a first line center who can shoot the puck, but anyone with some skill could help the offense. Unfortunately, none of Canadiens' second-tier forwards (Benoit Pouliot, Scott Gomez, Andrei Kostitsyn, Lars Eller) has been able to run with one of the top six forward jobs. Bringing in a top six forward of the same caliber might just displace one of them without significantly improving Montreal's overall scoring.

    The long term injuries to Markov and Gorges leave them with about $3 million in cap space to facilitate a deal.           

Special Teams

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    The Montreal Canadiens' power play was a team strength last year (second, 21.8 percent). Montreal's power play is currently only 12th best in the league (18.5 percent). The 189 opportunities they've had leave them 19th in the league in that statistic. That combination has them tied with the Leafs and the Flyers with 35 goals, 13th in the league. The league-leading Canucks have scored 51 power play goals.

    Last season, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Jaroslav Spacek ran the power play for most of the season when Andrei Markov was out. This year, the job has fallen on rookie PK Subban, new acquisition James Wisniewski and to a lesser extent, the veteran Roman Hamrlik and another rookie Yannick Weber. Bergeron, for all his defensive ineptitude, was a better power-play quarteback than any of these players and the power play shows it.

    Since Cammalleri has been out, there has been a significant dip in power play efficiency. The Canadien's do not have so many snipers that they can afford to lose their best and not notice it. His return should help the power play markedly. 

    The penalty kill had been among the league's best early in the season, but also taken a significant dip. Montreal is still seventh best in the league with 84.2 percent kill efficiency. That was very similar to what they managed last year when they finished 11th overall and killed 83 percent of the penalties they drew. It is still a team strength and was one of their best qualities in the playoffs last year.

    A team as weak offensively as the Canadiens will need to be as tight defensively as possible to succeed.

Team Prognosis

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    The Montreal Canadiens last year looked like a mediocre aging team that got dragged into the playoffs by the Herculean efforts of goaltender Jaroslav Halak. Their weak, aging defense was one of the most porous in the league. The offense was sporadic at best.

    They made the playoffs by earning 15 extra points in four on four overtime and in shootouts. In contrast, two of the teams they beat out for the playoffs the New York Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers earned four and six extra points in overtime and shootouts. The Canadiens barely deserved in be in the playoffs.

    Montreal parlayed that rather weak regular season performance into their best playoff run in recent memory. They beat the President's Trophy-winning Washington Capitals and the defending Stanley Cup Champions in two exciting seven game series. They succeeded with desperate defense, timely scoring and incredible goalkeeping.

    This year's version of the Canadiens looks better than last year's team at the same time. The defense has improved immeasurably. Carey Price has taken over the hero role from Jaroslav Halak and is currently outdoing what Halak has managed in St Louis. The scoring is very similar to what went on last year, but it has been timelier, just as it was in the playoffs.

    The Canadiens are earning their victories in regulation this year. They have a mere five extra points in overtime so far.

    There are some younger players, most notably PK Subban, making significant contributions. The addition of James Wisniewski has helped take the load off of the veteran defense that crumbled so often last year.

    This team looked like the 19th or 20th best team in the league going into the playoffs last year. They seem closer to being the 12th or 13th best team in the league that they are in the standings right now.

    The Canadiens are basically a .500 team against everyone in the league outside their own division. In their division, Montreal has a sparkling 11-3-1 record. If they  manage to maintain that success rate, they could even win the Northeast division title, stealing it from the Bruins.

    The Montreal Canadiens are middle quality NHL team. They are, however, moving in the right direction. The team looks better, more confident, mostly as a result of the success in last year's playoffs. The defense has been better and younger despite injuries to Josh Gorges and Andrei Markov. From a team with only one strength last season, Jaroslav Halak, they have evolved into a team with only one major weakness, the offense. The Canadiens have no legitimate No. 1 center. The addition of another scorer would take the load of Mike Cammalleri and leave the team capable of weathering an injury to one of their top six forwards.

    Montreal looks poised to make the playoffs this year and perhaps win their division and a series or two. Montreal is still two or three very good players away from competing for a Stanley Cup. A healthy Mike Cammalleri is one of those players.