It must be said, again, and perhaps over and over these days, that no one really expected the Montreal Canadiens to do anything this season.
Well, apart from continue to be bad.
They didn't really change much about the makeup of their team in the off-season. The front office, yes. The coach, yes. The team itself, not so much. Of the 19 Canadiens who have played at least 20 games this season, 17 played at least that many last year, and one of the ones who didn't was Andrei Markov, who has been revelatory even in his advanced age.
It was therefore not unreasonable to say that a team that finished among the absolute dregs of the league — your Blue Jackets, your Oilers, your Islanders — wouldn't just be able to clamber back into one of the playoff spots they occupied not-so-comfortably in the 2010-11 campaign.
Which is to say it wasn't like this was a good team that went through an inexplicably bad, season-long hiccup — not unlike the Flyers the year they drafted James van Riemsdyk or, hell, now. The Canadiens were a just-alright team that got considerably worse, and it was fair to expect they'd probably bob around somewhere in the middle. Being in the middle of 15th in the conference and sixth still doesn't get you into the playoffs.
Since the season started, things have obviously differed greatly from expectations, but the told-you-sos coming out of La Belle Provence have been muted at best. Compare this with those emanating from the depths of central Ohio, where barely clutching onto eighth place apparently qualifies as a major achievement, and you'd think the Canadiens were playing like, ahem, the team they're playing like right now.
When it takes a team as bad as Tampa coming to town and things don't even go that well against them until you get a late power play, that doesn't speak too well for the state of things.
Despite that win over a team deep in the Eastern Conference's cellar, you'd have to say the Habs are losing these days, and losing ugly.
Down 5-1 at Toronto, down 7-3 hosting Philadelphia, down 6-4 at Pittsburgh. You'd say it defied explanation if you hadn't seen what a disaster things were last year, but nonetheless, this is some confusing stuff from a team that really hasn't gone through a stretch this ugly all season. The only other time they lost three games in a row, they at least got a loser point out of a shootout with Buffalo, sandwiched between a respectable 2-1 loss to the Bruins and that 6-0 Hockey Night in Canada shellacking by the Maple Leafs.
So what gives?
It was easy to heap blame on Carey Price, who previously had been at least in the conversation for a Vezina, because he got the hook in both of the first two starts of this little skid. Boo him all you want. He gave up nine goals on 33 shots. That gives you license, by any logical stretch of the imagination and regardless of how excellent he was prior to the bloodletting. So Michel Therrien trots out Peter Budaj against Pittsburgh and, oh, the same thing happens. Three goals on nine shots, in comes Price, who gives up the same number of 20 and still gets the loss.
Hockey's a funny old game.
Here's a real quote from Therrien after things went sideways on Wednesday:
"We are trying to prepare ourselves for the playoffs and obviously we didn’t have a good night, and we’re going to have to tighten up our defensive game."
If there's an award for coaching understatements that one's taking the hardware home in a runaway, but still, no one's blaming the goaltending except the paying fans, who don't always see things as clearly as they might or perhaps should. Just a week ago, this was the sixth-best defensive team in hockey, and prior to last night's tilt with the woeful Lightning had given up 18 goals in three games.
What's interesting about this muddling stretch for Montreal is that it coincides with the Bruins' deep struggles (against teams markedly worse than Toronto and Pittsburgh), and it's all enough to give the observer the distinct impression that no one at all wants to win the Northeast Division. However, it doesn't really seem like you'd have to worry about either team, at least for the remainder of the regular season, at least based on the scheduling and expectations.
The vast majority of each team's remaining games are against Southeast teams, which is a nice way to pad out the points (or would be if they were playing anything resembling their best hockey), so you have to think the ships at least get righted the rest of the way. Then again, maybe not.
As for the playoffs, though, who knows?
You would think that given the way the stats have been bouncing all year, the Toronto Maple Leafs would be an easy draw for whoever ends up second in the division, but the Habs should want no part of their archrivals considering how earlier meetings have gone.
We can all agree that this has been a terribly strange year in hockey — again, the Blue Jackets might make the playoffs, for crying out loud — and it looks like at long last even the Canadiens aren't immune to it. All the panic, though, seems a bit misplaced.
Yeah, the Habs aren't playing anything resembling the hockey they've played all season, but they're still one of the best possession teams in the league and they're excellent in goal and on the blue line in particular, with a few exceptional forwards, even if the number of household names on the roster doesn't quite line up with those for Boston and Pittsburgh.
If the Bruins or even the Leafs were making a more convincing case for the division crown, then sure, you could start sweating it a little bit that Montreal has been giving up goals at a Pavelec-like pace for a week. But in the end it's a week, and the only reason it's a concern is what part of the calendar that week happens to fall in. If this was late February instead of mid-April, the results would certainly raise eyebrows, but not get them so furrowed in disgust and fear as they have been.
It's difficult to imagine Carey Price has had a worse stretch in his entire career than this one that just ended (maybe late October last year if you want to really stretch it) and it's therefore difficult to imagine this goes on a whole lot longer than it already has.
He's fine. The Habs are fine.
Until, or if, they play the Penguins. Then all bets are off.
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