The Montreal Canadiens followed up a great playoff run with an amazing start to the 2010-11 NHL season. They were first in the Northeast Division on Dec. 7. Since then they've gone 3-8-1.
They have gone 3-6-1 in their last 10 with only the hapless New Jersey Devils (2-8-0) and the rebuilding Edmonton Oilers (1-7-2) doing worse. The Toronto Maple Leafs (4-6-0) have been better than Montreal and even have a 3-1 win over the Canadiens in December to show for it.
Central to this collapse was a seven game Christmas crossing road trip that saw the Canadiens go 2-5. One of those victories was an overtime win over the Florida Panthers. On the trip the Canadiens managed to score only 12 goals while giving up 23. It featured a loss to the New York Islanders that perhaps jump started the James Wisniewski trade.
Every team has low points in its season and this quite possibly is Les Habitant's. Qualitatively they don't look that bad. Carey Price hasn't suddenly begun giving up goals from center ice or panicking in his own zone. He seems as calm and competent as he has all year.
The special teams are still ticking along. The penalty kill is the best in the league with an 87.4 percent success rate. The power play started slowly this year but has come around. The Candiens are 10th best in the league scoring 19.6 percent of the time they have the man advantage.
Scoring is down in Montreal. The problems scoring five on five that were prevalent last year have resurfaced. The defense is giving up fewer shots per game than it did last year and the team is tough to score on.
Injuries to Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges are threatening the defense and have resulted in the trade for James Wisniewski and Brett Festerling.
Festerling was a Ducks prospect as a defensive defenseman. The Canadiens are looking to season him in the AHL and will probably give him a shot at the big club next year or even late this year.
He's a young defenseman who could fill a slot inexpensively for a team that has three unrestricted free agent defensemen (Andrei Markov, Roman Hamrlik, Hal Gill) and four RFAs (Josh Gorges, James Wisniewski, Yannick Weber, Alex Picarde). Only Jaroslav Spacek and P.K. Subban are under contract for next year.
Wisniewski has been a boon on the power play and is not eligible for arbitration next year. If he works out this season he is likely to be re-signed though probably at a discount from his current $3.25 million.
Josh Gorges and Webber will also likely be resigned. Gill depending on his price and Markov depending on his health are still question marks. Picarde and Hamrlik will probably be left to sign elsewhere. Mathieu Carle, Brett Festerling or maybe even 6'6" Jared Tinordi will be called on to fill out the defense in Montreal next year.
Last season, Montreal was among the league leaders in overtime and shoot-out success. They went 15-10 after 60 minutes earning an extra 15 points in the standings.
The New York Rangers were only in 15 extra-time games and went 4-11 so only earned four extra points. An extra 11 points in the standings makes up for a lot of bad play in the first 60 minutes.
This season the Canadiens have only been in five overtime games in their first 40 games and they've gone 2-3. Suddenly, Montreal isn't generating a lot of the extra points that they needed last year to make the playoffs.
Success this year has come mostly versus their Northeast division opponents. Montreal has a 9-3-0 record inside the division. They are a sub .500 team outside the division. In contrast their division opponents are all hovering near or below .500 against each other.
Boston is in first place because of success versus the Southeast and Atlantic divisions (15-5-2). If Montreal can continue to dominate inside the division they could still quite possibly win it.
The big problem in Montreal seems to be an inability to score. Tomas Plekanec leads Montreal with 32 points in 39 games. That's less than half of Sidney Crosby's total. He's tied for 41st in league scoring. He has fewer points than Kris Letang and Tobias Enstrom.
Monteal needs to score more and to score more at even strength. To accomplish that they need a top quality first line offensive center. Scott Gomez has started generating some offense after a horrific start.
Unfortunately, he has still only managed five goals and 21 points in 38 games. That projects to a 10 goal 42 point season for his $7.357 million cap hit.
That's not enough offense and his cap hit prevents Montreal from signing another first line center. If they can somehow get a first line center lined up they need to be prepared to put Gomez in the minors.
He's good enough to play in the NHL and make a positive contribution. He's just not good enough to play and charge $7.357 million a year for it.
The good news is that seems to be the only big hole in the Canadien's lineup. Defense has been good and goaltending great. The special teams are strong. Only the scoring and the faceoff work has been sub-par. Jeff Halpern has certainly improved the team's record in defensive faceoffs.
They are likely to play better this year than they have played recently. They're likely to do better once they hook up with Northeast division opponents again. But, I do worry that this Montreal Canadien lineup might not be able to score enough to make it in to the playoffs this year.