What is it with this Montreal Canadiens team?
Just when you think they are going to play well, they throw out a stinker. When you think they're going to get blown out of the rink, they win against the top team in the league.
The up-and-down season continued for the Canadiens last night, as they fell 5-4 in regulation to the red-hot Toronto Maple Leafs.
You have to give full marks to the Leafs, who despite being the weaker team on paper, used a physical edge to get the Habs off their game. So while Coach Martin and fans alike were expecting a return to the Habs' hermetic defensive ways, what they got was a run-and-gun game featuring bad defense with gusts up to horrendous.
Starting with Dion Phaneuf and Mike Komisarek, the Leafs set the tone early in the first period by manhandling Tomas Plekanec, among others, without taking penalties. The aggressive play seemed to distract the Habs from the task at hand and this is not the first time we have seen that happen to this team.
The Habs were able to get on the board first when Jeff Halpern deflected a Roman Hamrlik shot past rookie James Reimer at 5:43 of the opening frame. However, as we have seen far too many times this season, the Canadiens got themselves into penalty trouble and the Leafs were able to capitalize.
Toronto scored two straight power play goals and an even-strength marker on their first nine shots before Martin pulled Alex Auld in favour of Carey Price.
Montreal tied the game at three before the five-minute mark of the second with back-to-back power play goals, before again getting into penalty trouble, enabling the Leafs to regain the lead.
Toronto made it a two-goal game early in the third before Max Pacioretty scored his 11th of the season with less than three minutes to play. Unfortunately for the Habs, they were unable to gain possession of the puck in order to pull Price for the extra attacker, and their comeback fell short.
Final score: Leafs 5 - Habs 4
Habs' scorers: Jeff Halpern (10), Michael Cammalleri (14), James Wisniewski (6), Max Pacioretty (11)
Leafs' scorers: Phil Kessel (24, 25), Brett Lebda (1), Tyler Bozak (9, 10)
Three stars: 1. Phil Kessel, 2. Tyler Bozak, 3. Michael Cammalleri
1. The Habs need to get tougher.
Team toughness is a great catchphrase and I truly believe that the Habs have it. However, with three days left until the trade deadline, the Canadiens absolutely must get tougher.
With the Leafs openly mugging players like Plekanec, Gionta and others last night it is apparent that Montreal will never be able to get past a team like the Flyers, and to a lesser extent the Bruins, in the playoffs.
If there is one trend we have seen from Montreal this season, it is that they tend to whither against opponents who bring a physical brand of hockey. And, at least right now, the Habs don't seem to have anyone on the team who can make room for and protect their smaller, skilled players.
In his first three shifts on the ice last night, Plekanec got slammed to the ice, pushed, jostled and face-washed by both Phaneuf and Komisarek. Good on those two players for going after the Habs' No.1 center, because that is how you win games. But what was abhorrent was the absolutely lack of response from anyone in the Habs lineup.
Your No.1 center and best offensive player gets physically abused and no one steps up? Not one player responds or goes after Phaneuf or Komisarek?
Plekanec, who is looking more and more tired each game, gets thrown off his game when he has to concentrate on defending himself rather than trying to create offense. And, if you think it's bad now just wait until the playoffs start and opposing coaches target him for physical abuse.
If the Habs can't find a player or two that can defend their players before the deadline, I fear that their playoffs will end with another brutal series loss to the Flyers or Bruins.
2. Alex Auld was not at fault.
There was an expectation that after winning in Vancouver that Coach Martin would go back to Carey Price last night against Toronto. Sure the Leafs weren't supposed to represent a huge challenge for the Habs, but with the playoffs fast approaching, you thought the coach would go with the hot hand against a division opponent.
Martin had other plans, electing to go with Auld instead.
The first game home after a road trip is always a tough one to win and putting Auld in the net was likely intended to induce tighter defensive play from the Habs—teams tend to play tighter in front of their back ups.
That theory didn't work out so well for Auld and the Habs last night.
While many this morning are blaming Auld for the loss, the Habs were defensively porous in front of him. I'll concede that Auld was weak on the second Leafs' goal, but on the play Yannick Weber and Roman Hamrlik collided behind the net freeing the puck for Kessel to skate out front and slip it under Auld.
The problem is that there is no way that the puck should have gotten past Auld, who was in the one-knee-down stance. It slid right under his pad, which he didn't have tight against the ice.
That goal aside, the Canadiens were scrambling in their own end on the first and third goals by the Leafs, missing their assignments and looking more like the keystone cops than a tight, defense-first team.
When Auld went to the bench, Jacques Martin made his way over to and had a brief word with him. He most certainly told him the defeated looking Auld that the score was not his fault and that he was putting Price in to shake the team up.
Still, you've got to feel for Auld, who was trying for only his fifth regulation win of the season.
3. Are the Habs getting worn down?
Jacques Martin, who is far from a fan favorite, often makes strange coaching decisions that leaves fans and media alike scratching their heads.
Last night, we saw Cammalleri on the penalty kill, a role that has never been his forte with the Canadiens. In addition, we continue to see Roman Hamrlik on the first wave of the power play in place of P.K. Subban, paired with James Wizniewski.
So what gives?
With 20 games to play, the only possible explanation for these changes is that the coach is trying to rest some of his players. I mean how else can you explain Hamrlik on the first wave of the power play instead of Subban, with the Habs on the late third period PP and while trailing by one goal?
Shouldn't the instinct there be to load up with your most offensive players to give yourself the best chance of scoring the equalizer?
Is he such a robot that he can't break from his plan no matter what the score? Hmm, I think I just answered my own question there.
A lot has been made lately about the lack of production from Plekanec on the road and, overall, he only has two assists over his last six games. Moreover, as the end of the season approaches, Plekanec clearly looks like he is starting to fade due to overuse.
So with Plekanec clearly getting tired, why aren't the young players getting more ice time?
Pacioretty was one of the best forwards on the ice for Montreal yesterday, finishing the game with one goal and a team high nine shots on net, yet he only played 14:43 minutes.
David Desharnais too, who was full of energy and continued to setup excellent scoring chances, only played 8:53 minutes last night, 5:01 against the Canucks and is averaging only 12:21 per game.
These players have shown that they are capable while the veterans are looking more and more tired by the day. Bench management is a huge part of coaching and by giving so much time to clearly tired veterans, the coaching staff is setting the team up for playoff disappointment.
It is a massive failing by Jacques Martin and co. that they continue to overplay the vets while under-utilizing the young guns.
Let 'em play Jacques, and you'll probably win more games.
4. Isn't it about time the lack of discipline stops?
The Canadiens gave the Leafs four power plays in the first period alone and seven for the night, of which Toronto was able to score on three. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the game right there.
Looking at the list of penalties, most of them were the result of laziness or foolishness with three hooking calls and two for interference. Sadly, this is nothing new for the Habs, who have had problems with discipline all season long and are the second most penalized team in the league.
Fortunately from the Canadiens, with players like Tomas Plekanec, Jeff Halpern, Travis Moen, Tom Pyatt, Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Hal gill, they are a top-10 penalty kill all season and that's been their saving grace.
That being said, the playoffs are a whole different ball game, where power plays and special teams are often the difference between winning and losing.
With 20 games left in the season, it seems unlikely that the Canadiens will suddenly, miraculously learn the meaning of the word discipline. And who's fault is that?
When a team is consistently having a problem of making the same mistake after 62 games of an 82 game season, the finger clearly has to be pointed at the coaching staff.
5. P.K. Subban is an exceptional talent.
Subban has attracted a lot of attention his rookie season in the NHL and for many different reasons.
Opposing players and fans despised his early-season lip-flapping during games and after whistles, while Canadiens' fans love his effervescent style. Others notice him for his flashy offensive flare while others recognize his almost unparalleled mobility on the back end.
While Subban has had his ups and downs over the course of the season, he has truly settled into a rythm since Josh Gorges went down for the season and he was paired with Hal Gill.
If you take Andrei Markov out of the equation, Subban is currently third on the team for average time on ice with 22 minutes per game, behind only Wizniewski (22:39) and Hamrlik (22:18).
You have to keep in mind that at one point, Subban was only seeing around 10-15 minutes of ice per game, meaning that lately he has generally been the hands down ice time leader for the team.
While many criticized the way the Canadiens handled Subban at the beginning of the season, there is no questioning the results as he continues to look more than comfortable as the Habs No.1 defender.
Watching Subban last night, even when he is not making a big hit, great pass or setting up a scoring chance, he continues to do the little things well. Using his incredible skating ability to evade the aggressive Toronto forecheck, Subban looks more and more like a veteran defenseman every day.
With so many injuries on the back end, it's frightening to think about how much worse the Habs would be without his incredible progression this season.
Standings and Next Game
The Habs, 3-5-2 in their last 10 games, continue to struggle, but due to equal ineptitude by their Eastern conference rivals are still in sixth overall. The Canadiens record now stands at 32-23-7 with 71 points.
Montreal remains four points behind the Bruins, who have two games in hand, and three behind the Caps who have one game in hand.
Behind the Habs are the Rangers with 68 points and the Hurricanes, losers of two straight, with 65 points and one game in hand. After that there is a bit more of a drop off with the Sabres at 62 points with three games in hand and the Leafs with 61 points and one game in hand.
Montreal has the day off before welcoming the Hurricanes to the Bell Centre for a Saturday night four-pointer. A loss by the Habs on Saturday would leave the Canes only one point back with the same number of games played.
What is it with this Montreal Canadiens team?