State of the Habs, Part 6 – Games 21-24: No Defense, No Problem

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Prust's goal vs. Carolina was his 4th in 24 games. His career high is 13 in 82 games. (PHOTO: THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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”)
Part 5 (Games 17-20: 2-0-2, “And the Streak Goes On”)

Overview – 4 Game Segment 6/12 (Games 21-24)

Season Last Four Games
Record 15-5-4 2-1-1
Goal Differential +14 -1
Leading Scorer Pacioretty (8-12-20) Subban (3-3-6)
Hot (L4 GP) Eller (1-4-5)
Cold (L4 GP) Galchenyuk (0-1-1)

 

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

TORONTO, ON – At the end of the last four-game segment, there were hints that the Habs’ play in their own end wasn’t quite where it should be. A game against the Toronto Maple Leafs saw them exposed on a number of occasions, resulting in a score much closer than it should have been. But on that night, Montreal was so dominant that it didn’t really matter.

Not so much over the most recent four-game stint, one which saw an impressive 11-game streak without a regulation loss come to an end. The Canadiens started this stretch with a real challenge: a back-to-back against the East’s other two top contenders tot his point in the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins. The Saturday night matchup with the Pens turned into a last-shot-wins affair, as Montreal’s defensive lapses and a Carey Price off-night meant the team’s seventh goal allowed was the game-winner in overtime, with a character comeback allowing the salvaging of a point. Sidney Crosby was a constant threat all night, and one has to wonder how many goals the visitors might have netted had the injured Evgeni Malkin been in the line-up.

It was a better effort in Boston where the team avenged a loss from earlier in the season in order to impressively wrap up the weekend with three points out of a possible four. But the momentum would come crashing to a halt with a disappointing loss to the New York Islanders, where a second period meltdown and further lapses in coverage were too much to overcome.

It looked like the final game in this last segment – Thursday night against the Carolina Hurricanes – might have been a repeat affair of the Islanders’ game, as another dreadful second period saw a 2-0 lead erased quickly. Yet the team awoke from a middle stand in which they were outshot 21-5 in time to carry the third and earn a 4-2 win with help from a bounce back performance by Price.

How negative can we really be?  Sure there are problems, but with the win, Montreal reached the midway point of its short 48-game calendar and did so with a far better record than even the most hopeful have prognosticators could have anticipated. At 15-5-4, they cling to first place in the Eastern Conference – a narrow one point ahead of the Bruins who hold three games in hand – but more importantly, they have an 11 point cushion on a playoff spot ahead of 9th place Winnipeg. Your standings update (via NHL.com):

standeastmidway

Surpassing Expectations

I’ll readily admit that when the Canadiens announced the signing of Brandon Prust, my feelings were mixed. On one hand, he was high on my list of good fits as the type of player the team needed to add. On the other hand, a $2.5M cap hit for four seasons for a guy I saw as – ideally – a fourth liner seemed very expensive. And while it remains to be seen if Prust will be able to maintain his level and style of play over the lengthy term he was awarded, for the time being, he has been a brilliant addition. Prust has done anything and everything that could be expected of him, providing leadership to the team’s rookies, reliable on the penalty kill and in his own end, dishing out heavy hits, dropping the gloves whenever needed, and even chipping in offensively, on a pace that would eclipse his previous 29-point career high over a 30 game season. For the two-way third-line role he has played, his contract is very fair, and he has become an important fixture in the team’s bottom six. His 3-point night against Carolina was the first in his NHL career, and his first since playing for the OHL’s London Knights.

Prust's goal vs. Carolina was his 4th in 24 games. His career high is 13 in 82 games. (PHOTO: THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prust’s goal vs. Carolina was his 4th in 24 games. His career high is 13 in 82 games. (PHOTO: THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Speaking of the team’s rookies, even when not producing, Brendan Gallagher is a player who has directly carried his complete game up to the NHL level. Gallagher had 4 assists over the weekend, but has been a threat every night, going to the high traffic zones and taking the puck to the net whenever he has the opportunity to do so. There has been a bit of a seesaw battle for who should earn the title of Montreal’s own “Rookie of the Year,” but certainly Gallagher has pulled a length ahead of late in his ability to do everything on the ice as a true three zone player. Because of his style and diminutive size, injuries are a concern over the longer term for Gallagher’s career, but it doesn’t seem to intimidate him from throwing hits, crashing creases, or simply doing whatever the team needs him to to help them win. Naturally, always with his trademark smile on his face.

When will the majority finally stand up and take notice of the banner season Lars Eller is having? The 23-year old Dane has proven virtually just as reliable as Tomas Plekanec in facing off against top opposing lines – though, of course, his average quality of opposition isn’t nearly as high just yet – while being on pace to match his 82-game season career high point total in this 48-game year. Since his early-season benching, Eller has played with a high compete level every night, being one of the team’s more consistent performers and showing chemistry with any of Brandon Prust and Alex Galchenyuk. With the Plekanec line struggling to score since the injury to Rene Bourque, offense from this third unit has been welcome support to the line of Gallagher, David Desharnais, and Max Pacioretty. Eller’s future remains unclear, as the team will eventually have decisions to make given its 4 centers for the top 3 lines (Desharnais, Plekanec, Galchenyuk, and Eller), but what does seem clear is that – given his development curve – we’ve yet to see Eller’s best days.

There were fears that after his contract holdout, P.K. Subban might get off to a slow start playing catch-up to those who had not only started the season on time, but in many cases had spent the Fall competing in other leagues. Yet despite having played considerably less than most of the other blueliners ranking among the top 20 in scoring at their position (especially when you factor in ice time), Subban’s two points against Carolina – including the insurance marker on a third period powerplay – have incredibly put him eigth in the league for defensemen in points and tied him for first in goals. He is finally taking shifts with Josh Gorges once again, though that may not last because of the need to balance out the third pairing, and if now getting the minutes he deserves (only once below 25 minutes during this four game stretch). The front office hopefully now sees that it can get working on a long-term extension beyond Subban’s current deal without fear of how he fits into the bigger picture puzzle.

 

The Letdowns

Andrei Markov was a great story at the start of this season as a tremendous comeback contributor. He was so good, in fact, that the coaching staff didn’t hesitate to play him 27 minutes or more on a regular basis as the team’s go-to guy in every situation. The workload has been hard on the injury-plagued 34-year old’s body, and his quality of play has visibly declined. He has looked slower than at any point previously in his career, getting caught out of position when pinching, and – most uncharacteristically of all – at times looking uncomfortable with the puck, particularly along the boards. It’s not to say that he has been awful, but he isn’t the dependable rearguard you want on the ice for nearly half of every game.

Is Armstrong's fit in the dressing room what's keeping him in the line-up? (PHOTO: Dario Ayala, The Gazette)
Is Armstrong’s fit in the dressing room what’s keeping him in the line-up? (PHOTO: Dario Ayala, The Gazette)

If I was skeptical of the Prust signing, I thought the deal given to Colby Armstrong was of low risk and potential high reward. While a one-year, $1M contract has no threat of handicapping the club long-term (or even short-term), he hasn’t brought any discernible skill set to the team beyond being a good locker room guy. Not that building a positive environment in the room isn’t important, but like with physical players, it is more impactful when the role players brought in for that can contribute in other ways as well. Armstrong has produced next to nothing in the way of offense and hasn’t been the physical player of his younger years. He has been used on the penalty kill, though his effectiveness there has been questionable. He is at risk of being scratched if/when Rene Bourque is healthy or a replacement is acquired, and at this point seems like a certainty to be let go in the summer.

Analysts and fans alike were nearly unanimous in anointing Montreal the winner of the Michael Ryder for Erik Cole trade, but while the main motivation for the move was salary cap flexibility in the future, Ryder’s play thus far has been largely disappointing. Four points in five games sounds good on paper for a player adjusting to a new system and new teammates, but he has been largely invisible, soft on the puck, and guilty of numerous turnovers. For a team that wants to be bigger and tougher, there has been nothing to suggest Ryder’s return to Montreal will last beyond the end of this season, though that isn’t necessarily a comment on the trade to acquire him as it will create all the more cap space to inject other new bodies into the line-up.

The game against the Hurricanes was no bigger a letdown for anyone than Yannick Weber. Not just because of his struggles early on, but then because of a knee injury that looks to keep him out for some time given the call-up of Greg Pateryn from the Hamilton Bulldogs. You would think a player who was only dressed once in his team’s first 23 games would be motivated and amp’ed to go for game 24, but other than a rare big hit on Jeff Skinner, Weber’s game was full of the weaknesses that have kept him in the press box. Skilled offensively and blessed with a big shot, Weber is small, soft on the puck, and prone to defensive lapses and giveaways. Depending on the severity of his injury, he may no longer be able to be used as trade fodder come deadline time, which many assumed to be a forgone conclusion. Though even if he is healthy, it is debatable as to whether he has any actual trade value at this point.

 

The Road Ahead

The next four games represent a relatively light load for the Canadiens and are thus a good opportunity to bank even more points ahead of the regular season’s final stretch.

It begins with a two-in-two down in Florida – the second such trip the team has taken this season already – against the Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning,  both of whom are sitting in the Eastern Conference’s cellar. The team then has two days off before each of its following two games, against clubs that seem destined to battle for the playoff lives down to the season’s final weeks, the Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils. For the second period in a row, only one of the four games (that vs. Ottawa) will be in the friendly confines of the Bell Centre, but the Habs have rattled off an impressive 7-2-2 record on the road.

The team can move forward feeling confident. Carey Price seemed back on track in Carolina with a 42-save effort after a pair of subpar performances. They’ve proven to be a resilient bunch, as while few of their leads have felt safe this season, no deficit has seemed insurmountable either.

Yes, recent defensive struggles have exposed weaknesses in the club’s back end, particularly when it comes to their older blueliners and the overall lack of size, but as a positive, it may have given General Manager Marc Bergevin the exact hints he needed as to what area to address come trade deadline day on April 3rd.

Finally, as most teams are hitting the halfway point of the season, it looks like an approximate number to safely make the playoffs in the East could be 54 points. Montreal is presently on pace for 68, and would hit 58 just by playing .500 hockey here on out. Thus all signs are positive that the city will come alive once more like only it can for the return of playoff hockey this Spring.

 

Three Stars – Sixth Twelfth

1. P.K. Subban

2. Lars Eller

3. Brandon Prust

 

Three Stars – Standings through 6/12 segments
(three points for being named first star, two for second, one for third)

1. P.K. Subban – 6
2. Tomas Plekanec – 5

3. Alex Galchenyuk – 4
3. Max Pacioretty – 4
3. Lars Eller – 4
6. Andrei Markov – 3

7. Carey Price – 2
7. Peter Budaj – 2
7. Brian Gionta – 2
7. Rene Bourque – 2
7. David Desharnais – 2
12. Raphael Diaz – 1
12. Brandon Prust – 

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