The Montreal Canadiens have had a rough time of things in recent weeks. After rolling off to a season-high five-game winning streak, the Habs have gone 3-6-0 in their last nine.
So, at a time when they should be fine tuning for the playoffs, they are instead just trying to keep the wheels from falling off the cart.
With only six games left in the 2011 NHL regular season, it's a very unfortunate time to be wondering what's gone wrong with the Habs. However, the play of Les Glorieux over the last month has left much to be desired and many scratching their heads.
Montreal gets a chance to lick their wounds today with a day off.
But their down time came at the cost of an extremely hard practice yesterday, where Coach Martin worked them like dogs. Considering how bad they've played lately, it's hardly a surprising move by the stoic coach.
How bad is it?
To put it simply, the Montreal Canadiens lack confidence in themselves and their abilities, and are not adhering to their system as a result. While few in this city are fans of the Jacques Martin way, his system has not only kept the Habs afloat this season, but has, until recently, allowed them to flirt with a top-three Eastern conference finish.
After coming off a season-high five straight wins from the end of February to the middle of March, Montreal has gone 3-6-0 over their last nine games—getting shutout in their last three.
During their five-game winning streak, Montreal scored 19 goals (average of 3.8 per game), allowed seven against (average of 1.4 per game), averaged 26 shots per game, scored six power play goals in 15 opportunities (40 percent efficiency), allowed only one power play goal in 22 shorthanded situations (95.45 percent efficiency) and collected 10 points in the process.
In comparison, in the nine games since, Montreal only has three wins (six points), has scored 20 goals (average of 2.2 per game), allowed 28 against (average of 3.1 per game), averaged 25.88 shots per game, scored two power play goals in 30 opportunities (6.6 percent efficiency) and allowed seven power play goals in 39 shorthanded situations (82 percent efficiency).
If you take out the Habs' 8-1 thrashing of the Minnesota Wild, Montreal has only scored 12 goals while allowing 27 against over eight games.
That translates into a pitiful 1.5 goals-for and an inflated 3.5 goals-against.
So what is ailing the Canadiens?
The first thing that comes to mind is injuries. Many, if not all, of the Canadiens players are playing with and through bumps and bruises.
I don't accept that excuse, however, since at this stage of the season every team is playing with injuries and no one is 100 percent.
If you ask the players, as several reporters did yesterday, they'll spout every sports cliché in the book:
"We're squeezing our sticks too hard..."
"...it's time to look in the mirror..."
"We have to put on our work boots..."
"All for one and one for all..."
It's all just talk, however, as words mean much less than actions on the ice—a department in which that Habs have been sorely lacking recently.
So, while the Habs are saying all the right things, having team meetings and undergoing bag-skates by the coach, they are still not getting it done on the ice.
Like any losing streak, it comes down to a combination of factors and breakdowns in their system. The first thing that sticks out while watching the Habs play, however, is their lack of proper puck support.
Montreal is a team whose game is built off of speed. That speed, however, is the result of an excellent transition game where the Canadiens' defenders quickly turn the puck up the ice to their speedy forwards.
When the Habs attack the neutral zone with speed, they are playing to their strength and employing a style that often backs up opposing defenders.
Recently, however, the Habs have gotten away from this basic part of their game and seem to be acting more like individuals than a five-man unit.
In recent weeks, when the Habs' defenders have the puck deep in their own end, the forwards are usually too far up the ice to act as useful outlets. As a result, the gap between defense and offense becomes too big, and Montreal's defensemen are left without passing options, or poor ones at best.
The Habs' weak puck support is leading to a lot of defensive zone turnovers and low-percentage, hail-Mary-type passes—both of which are killing the team.
So, step one has got to be for the forwards to come back and stay deeper in their own end in order to support a better transition. Moreover, they have to get back to carrying the puck up the ice as a five-man unit.
Scoring Drought and Defensive Woes
You'll notice in my comparison above of the five-game winning streak to the nine subsequent games, that Montreal was averaging essentially the same 25-26 shots per game.
So why the drop in scoring?
The Habs are still getting shots on net, but they're almost all from the outside with little traffic in front. With few players going to the net on a regular basis, there is rarely anyone there to pick up rebounds, screen the goalie or deflect the puck.
Shots from 25 feet out with no one in front tend to get gobbled up by NHL netminders.
Fixing this issue is a matter of testicular fortitude. Sadly, this is something that has been in short supply for Montreal in recent weeks.
The Canadiens simply need to commit to the heavy traffic areas and take the physical punishment that comes along with it. That's the only way they are going to create more quality scoring chances.
The other major issue I see with the team is their abysmal defensive zone coverage, as it's there that the Habs' lack of cohesion is most evident.
The Canadiens used to look like a well-oiled machine, communicating with each other and moving together in a defensive zone dance. Lately, however, the communication has stopped and the unforced errors are plentiful.
Montreal has become five islands on the ice rather than one five-man unit.
The answer is pretty simple: communication. They don't have it right now, but they sure as hell need it!
Getting back to good communication on the ice is the only way the Habs will be able to turn things around.
It really is amazing how players stop talking to each other when their confidence is low. Moreover, as teams go into slumps, professional athletes tend to try to fix the problem by themselves, further compounding the problem and the frustration.
Whatever the explanation, the Habs need to get back to basics in the defensive zone and the path to salvation is paved by communication.
So what's next?
The Montreal Canadiens have only six games left, but five of them are against teams that are below them in the standings. As such, they really couldn't ask for a better path to the playoffs.
Their fate is in their own hands, and I for one believe that they will right the ship in time for the playoffs. In order do to so, however, the Habs have to play their best hockey of the season to turn things around.
There is absolutely no excuse for losing to the non-playoff Thrashers, Canes, Sens and Leafs—four of the six teams they will face in the next two weeks.
With 87 points in the standings, the Habs will need at least three more wins to qualify for the post-season.
If they can find their scoring touch again—and I believe they will tomorrow night against the Thrashers—and are able to get on a roll and pick up some points, this adversity might propel them to a strong post-season.
If, however, they continue to stumble and bumble and need another "loser" point in their final game to make it, don't expect a repeat of last year's miraculous playoff run!
New Sunday Shinny - March 27, 2011
On this episode of the Sunday Shinny, Gary Whittaker, Nick Murdocco and Kamal Panesar of HabsAddict.com welcome Kyle Roussel of Cowhide and Rubber to the studio.
—We discuss Tony Marinaro's report about the Canadiens offering Andrei Markov a 1 year deal, and Markov's agent counter of 3 years
—More of a debate on Jacques Martin, and what it will take to turn this slump around
—What to do with Scott Gomez
Click play here to listen in (listing time 39:51).
Kamal is a freelance Habs writer, Senior Writer/Editor-in-Chief of HabsAddict.com, Montreal Canadiens Blogger on Hockeybuzz.com and Habs writer on TheFranchise.ca. Kamal is also a weekly contributor to the Sunday Shinny on The Team 990 (AM 990) every Sunday from 8 - 9 AM. Listen live at http://www.team990.com/