The Habs were in dire straits late in Game 5 Thursday night, going into the third period trailing 3-1 in both the game and the series. Forget the fact that they entered the playoffs as the number 2 seed in the East, that they won of the Northeast Division, that they entered the playoffs with aspirations of going deep, late in the game the Canadiens looked like a team depleted.
And in fairness, they were a team depleted. The Habs started Game 5 minus many of their most important players. Perhaps the end result was a foregone conclusion, but for the first two periods at least, the Habs did manage to stay in the conversation. By the end of the third, they were anything but.
Price Just One of Many Missing Pieces
You could start off the list of walking wounded with Carey Price, he was forced out of Game 4 and will likely have a Summer of rehab ahead of him. Price, who appeared to be playing through a nagging injury for most of April, ceded the crease to Peter Budaj for Montreal’s most important battle of the season. In and of itself, having Budaj backstopping the Habs should not have been an insurmountable obstacle, after all he did finish the year with a 8-1-1 record.
But the list of injuries didn’t stop with Price. For a second consecutive year, Captain Brian Gionta’s season was ended by a torn biceps. Tough guys Ryan White and Brandon Prust were battered and bruised, and unavailable for the eventual final game of the Habs’ season. Defenseman Alexei Emelin’s season was done well before the playoffs began. And of course there was Lars Eller, who was injured in the opening game series after a crushing hit from Eric Gryba.
Without that long list of impact players, it’s no surprise the Habs were unable to stave off elimination Thursday night. To make matters worse, Max Pacioretty, who missed Game 2 of the season, was playing through the pain of a separated shoulder.
With so much wear and tear at the end of a 48-game season, it’s painful to imagine what might happen to this team during a full 82-game campaign.
What Does the Future Hold for Habs?
The Canadiens can take plenty of positives away from this season. After finishing last in the East and third to last in the league a season ago, the team climbed all the way to fourth overall and second in the Conference. PK Subban emerged as one of the most dominant defensemen in the league, and with Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher both having standout seasons, the future looks bright.
But the slew of injuries that piled up as the Habs were forced out of the playoffs makes it clear that the team needs to get tougher. On his blog, Globe and Mail reporter James Mirtle posted the average height, weight and age for each team for the opening season rosters along, with their ranks. The Habs opened the season not only with the shortest roster in the league but the third lightest as well. The end result speaks for itself.
So while the Habs are moving in the right direction, helped not only by talented rookies, but by the signing of gritty forwards Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong last Summer, they still have more work to do in the sandpaper department, especially on the blueline.
Canadiens Will Need to Bulk up on Defense
As much trouble as the Canadiens had generating traffic in front of Craig Anderson, they had even more trouble clearing traffic from in front of their own goalies. Losing Emelin definitely hurt the team. Aside from rookie Jarred Tinordi, the Habs were without the type of defensemen that could stand up opponents at the Montreal blueline, consistently win battles in the corner, or clear the traffic in the slot.
When the Canadiens made their miraculous playoff run in 2010 they did so with a core of seasoned defensive vets, Hal Gill, Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek. Each one was difficult to play against in their own end, and at that point in their careers, each was rough and rugged enough to endure a long season and the ensuing playoff campaign. Even Ryan O’Byrne, at 6’5”, played an important role in the Habs’ playoff run.
Marc Bergevin should keep this in mind when he is looking to plug the holes that were exposed in his team’s early exit from the playoffs this year. The Canadiens are still developing after a major retool and it looks like rugged defensive defensemen are among the tools the Habs are still lacking.
Rob has been blogging about the Habs since 2011 at MontrealHockeyTalk.com and can usually be heard before every Canadiens games on the MHT Pregame Show.