After all the early talk of the Montreal Canadiens unexpectedly making the playoffs, we are now facing a reality where they may not actually make the playoffs. Montreal is currently three points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with ten games to play. Why?
Montreal sits ninth in the Eastern Conference to win the Stanley Cup at a best price of +3500. Just a few weeks ago, they were +2100. It's a significant shift, which has seen Pittsburgh and Montreal switch places, and there is one reason why.
Montreal cannot score.
Teams on the bubble that have made the playoffs have scored just enough goals (about three a game) to get to the second season. However, Montreal have scored just 12 goals in their last seven games. That averages to just 1.72 goals per game. The Canadiens are 2-5 predictably in that span. Montreal has yielded just five goals in the past three contests and have lost two of the three games.
Oh, that man disadvantage…
So, what is arguably the biggest problem? It must be the power play, right? Right!
Montreal are not just bad on the power play, they are historically bad on the man advantage. They are a league worst 11.9% on the power play and that number dips to just over 10% since January 1st. Montreal is right around the league average in drawing opportunities but are a whopping 16 goals below the league average. To put that into perspective, the Tampa Bay Lightning have scored 67 times on the man advantage in just 17 more chances than the Canadiens have had. That is a discrepancy of 41 more goals. If Montreal had even an average power play or something close to it, then they'd be sat in a playoff spot.
Most of Montreal’s thrust on the power play comes from shots originating from the point. The hope is those Shea Weber blasts find the net or rebounds to eager Montreal players who can score. Even the San Jose Sharks figured out taking 100+ mph shots from Brent Burns all the time was not the answer. There needs to be creativity. Montreal should be able to pressure and chase the puck all over with their speed. Montreal have their playmakers far away from the net and not in a position to do damage on the man advantage.
This does not appear to be a coaching problem either. Players have to execute, and it seems no matter who is on the top or second unit, the cohesion seems to collapse at the first sign of adversity. There are better odds of hitting the lottery than Montreal scoring multiple power-play goals in the same game.
For a humbling dose of reality, Jonathan Drouin leads the team in power play points with 14. The leader in man advantage goals is a three-way tie with four. Three players have 10+ points on the power play and two of those have exactly ten.
Personal offensive slumps are one thing but this whole team must be accountable for what is the bumbling power play. It's simple, put players on the half wall, move people around, start benching people. The players too need to to stop looking to Jeff Petry and Shea Weber to fire away from the point, and focus on looking closer, setting up more plays near the net which small and fast forwards can thrive and bang rebounds home.
It is not just the power play…
Some have pointed to the slump of Jonathan Drouin as the main culprit but that could not be further from the truth. While yes, Drouin has one four-point game in the last ten contests and that is all his points, that is not the main problem. Special teams are problematic overall. Even the penalty kill suffers immeasurably of late (78.5% since February 1st – bottom third).
The Canadiens are a top-ten team at 5 on 5 which will not get a team into the playoffs alone. Montreal’s biggest problem on the penalty kill is puck pursuit. Ironically, this is a fast team and yet for whatever reason they always seem a step slow. This puts everyone out of position, including the goalie, just long enough for goals to occur.
Montreal’s late season swoon on the penalty kill could not come at a worse time because it feels like the power play has been abandoned. Claude Julien appears like a coach who has written it off as an acceptable loss. The penalty kill cannot afford to be. Having one deficient special teams’ unit is one thing but to have both is fatal. It is why Montreal is on the outside looking in and may stay that way. It is up to guys like Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, Shea Weber, and even Carey Price to right this ship and quick.
If something does not give, and fast, the Montreal staff will be spending April 7th and the rest of the offseason on the golf course, wondering what might have been.
By Chris Wassel