State of the Habs, Part 5 – Games 17-20: And the Streak Goes On

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Price has seen a reduced workload as Montreal is third in the NHL for fewest shots allowed per game at 25.8. (PHOTO: Ben Pelosse/QMI Agency)

State of the Habs is a 12-part feature series where I’ll break down the Habs’ season into 4-game chunks and look at players who are under- or over-performing during that time, while commenting on issues surrounding the team.

See Previous Segments:
Part 1 (Games 1-4: 3-1-0, “The Boys are Back in Town”)
Part 2 (Games 5-8: 3-1-0, “Rinse and Repeat”)
Part 3 (Games 9-12: 1-2-1, “The Plot Thickens”)
Part 4 (Games 13-16: 4-0-0, “Perfection”)

Overview – 4 Game Segment 5/12 (Games 17-20)

Season Last Four Games
Record 13-4-3 2-0-2
Goal Differential +15 +4
Leading Scorer Pacioretty (6-10-16) Pacioretty (4-1-5)
Hot (L4 GP) Desharnais (0-4-4)
Cold (L4 GP) Plekanec (0-0-0)

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

TORONTO, ON – After rattling off a perfect 4-0-0 record in their previous four-game segment, the Canadiens had to prove that they could handle their own within the Northeast Division if they were to keep the momentum going.  While Montreal had feasted on the rest of the Eastern Conference, they were a dismal 2-4-1 within their own division, a discouraging sign given the team’s remaining schedule.

Yet the team rose to the challenge once again, continuing to prove their start was no fluke in extending their point streak to nine games with a 2-0-2 record, now on a 7-0-2 run. And the truth is, the team certainly could have put up a second consecutive 4-0-0 stretch, as they outplayed the Ottawa Senators the majority of the night in their shootout loss, and blew 2-0 and 3-1 leads in an overtime loss to the New York Islanders.

The past week wasn’t without its casualties, however, as both Rene Bourque and Raphael Diaz – key offensive contributors early on – are out indefinitely with concussions suffered in seemingly-innocuous plays. The other casualty – one of his own slow start and inflated long-term contract – was Erik Cole, cast off to the Dallas Stars in return for Michael Ryder and a third round pick, but more importantly in return for cap flexibility, given Ryder’s UFA status at season’s end and the two years at a $4.5M cap hit remaining beyond this year for Cole.

Fortunately, the rest of the group has kept on rolling, with different players and lines stepping into a hero role on a game-to-game basis. On a team without true top tier superstars, it’s important to have that depth, and it has perhaps been the biggest difference from Canadiens teams of the past several years who were over-reliant on a single productive trio.

The six points out of a possible eight allowed Montreal to retain top spot in the East for another stretch, though the Boston Bruins are hot in their trail with four games in hand (via NHL.com):

EstStand5

Surpassing Expectations

The heroes of the early season – players like Andrei MarkovTomas Plekanec, and Brian Gionta – have seen their sticks gone relatively cold, but a healthy Max Pacioretty has taken over the charge offensively. Despite multiple injuries, Pacioretty has reversed his goalless start to the season, piling on a pair of two-goal performances over the past four outings, and has points in six of his past seven games – collecting six goals and four helpers over that stretch.

One of Pacioretty’s new linemates, Brendan Gallagher, has lived up to the hype with which he was billed following a stellar training camp back in the Fall of 2011. Many wondered if Gallagher – generously listed at 5’9″ – could coexist on a line with 5’7″ David Desharnais, but thus far results have been positive. After missing only one week from the concussion he suffered against the Philadelphia Flyers, Gallagher returned to as big a role as he has played with the team, setting highs in ice time and potting the winning goal Wednesday in Toronto – his sixth of the year, which is just two behind rookie leader Jonathan Huberdeau.

Therrien has managed his rookie forwards carefully this season, and the results have been evident. (PHOTO: Montreal Gazette)
Therrien has managed his rookie forwards carefully this season, and the results have been evident. (PHOTO: Montreal Gazette)

 

Perhaps more importantly is that the energy and enthusiasm that he and fellow rookie Alex Galchenyuk bring on a consistent basis seems to be contagious, as the youngsters first ignited Lars Eller, and Gallagher seems to have helped bring new life to David Desharnais.

 

The Letdowns

It’s difficult to pinpoint any true disappointing performers over the last few games. Alex Galchenyuk has had a tougher time on the defensive side of things recently, with coach Michel Therrien taking note, dropping him to the fourth line with Ryan White and Colby Armstrong for the second half of the matchup against the Maple Leafs. Still, it was his line that led the club in the victory over the New York Rangers, and his chemistry with Eller has been something to behold in spurts.

One question mark has been the lack of ice time for P.K. Subban, which has surprisingly not grown as most thought it would once he regained his timing. He has been a solid contributor on the blueline, yet played only 19:46 against Toronto – his only night of last than 20 minutes in the past four games – and that despite the injury to Raphael Diaz, which saw Francis Bouillon promoted to the second pair with Josh Gorges (largely for balance purposes) instead.

Another question is what to do with the Tomas Plekanec line, whose offensive slowdown can be in part attributed to Brandon Prust slotting in as a replacement for the more talented Rene Bourque. The line is being matched against opposing top units, so Prust fits well in a shutdown capacity, but over the longer-term, if Bourque remains out, the team may seek to add another scorer (particularly one with size). Marc Bergevin has one month from Sunday until the NHL trade deadline to make such decisions. A pending UFA like Ryan Clowe or David Clarkson might look great on the unit, depending on the plans of their current squads.

Price has seen a reduced workload as Montreal is third in the NHL for fewest shots allowed per game at 25.8. (PHOTO: Ben Pelosse/QMI Agency)
Price has seen a reduced workload as Montreal is third in the NHL for fewest shots allowed per game at 25.8. (PHOTO: Ben Pelosse/QMI Agency)

A final point to address is the play of one Carey Price. Many became critical of the netminder for the tight scores in Toronto and Ottawa despite the ice surface often seeming tilted in the Canadiens’ favour. It is true that at times this season he hasn’t made the show-stopping game-stealing saves we have seen previously, but his goaltending has kept the team competitive virtually every night, and the games being close should be more attributed to Montreal defensive lapses and forwards unable to bear down on their own scoring opportunities.

 

The Road Ahead

If the last four game set was on the softer side, the Habs have a real challenge at hand over this weekend, with a back-to-back against the Eastern Conference’s other top two squads, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins. It’ll be the first time Montreal matches up against the Pens this season, and the team will have to take advantage of at times shaky goaltending by firing lots of rubber on goal, also benefiting from an injury to Evgeni Malkin in their efforts at keeping opposing chances to a minimum.

Boston will be waiting at home for Montreal to arrive, and it’s possible recent call-up Gabriel Dumont sees his first NHL action of the season as an extra pest to match up with the pugilists on the Bruins’ roster (perhaps a better fit than Colby Armstrong).

The second half of the set should be an easier go for the Canadiens, as both the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes have struggled with inconsistencies. They can’t be taken lightly, however, as the Islanders surprised Montreal in overtime just last week, making it a prime opportunity for vengeance.

The Habs have a chance to hang on to their top seed for another segment if they can keep up their strong play, notably if they can beat the Bruins, as Boston won’t make up any of its four games in hand over this stretch. In fact, Montreal will have played more games than Boston until the season’s final week, but what is important is that the club doesn’t have to worry about teams its chasing this season. Winning the Eastern Conference in the regular season isn’t what’s important; the team looks good for earning a playoff spot, and can continue to set its own pace until that achievement is locked down.

 

Three Stars – Fifth Twelfth

1. Max Pacioretty

2. David Desharnais

3. Lars Eller

 

Three Stars – Standings through 5/12 segments
(three points for being named first star, two for second, one for third)

1. Tomas Plekanec – 5
2. Alex Galchenyuk – 4
2. Max Pacioretty – 4
4. Andrei Markov – 3

4. P.K. Subban – 3
6. Carey Price – 2
6. Peter Budaj – 2
6. Brian Gionta – 2
6. Rene Bourque – 2
6. Lars Eller – 2
6. David Desharnais – 2
12. Raphael Diaz – 1

 

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