Blame Arrogance for Habs Woes

It takes a certain amount of arrogance to know you can survive a third period deficit and emerge victorious.  The Montreal Canadiens have been coasting on confidence in the early goings of the 2014-2015 season.  And, for better or worse, it’s been effective, until now.

After a successful 7-0-1 start, the team’s best since 1961-1962, the Habs are sitting precariously tied for first place in the Eastern Conference. This is in no way thanks to a power play that is ranked an abysmal 28th in the league.  Nor is it thanks to the team’s ability to score goals, their 2.07 goals per game is ranked 27th; their -8 goal differential is 2nd worst in the division. Worse still, the team has yet to put together a 60 minute effort.  Far from it.  No, the Habs have managed their impressive start because they believe they can win on any given night against any given team, despite Fenwick and Corsi ratings that rank in the middle of the pack.

(Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)
(Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

Habs Reality Check

The truth is, on most nights the Habs let their opponents come at them for 40 minutes only to pull a rabbit out of their hats in the third period.  In six games already this season, the Habs have stormed out in the third period to comeback or go ahead.

Of the team’s 33 goals scored, 15 were tallied in the third period.  That’s almost half the team total, and good for 7th in the NHL.  By contrast, the team has scored only 4 goals in the first period, placing them 27th in the league.  Furthermore, they’ve allowed the opposition to score first in 11 of 14 tries.  Tough numbers for a team that’s currently tops in the East.

Stats aside, especially considering that advanced analytics can’t really account for the team’s success, and despite the odds, the Habs continues to eke out wins.  I think, the fan of intangibles that I am, I think it stems from a point late last season when the Habs discovered their true depth and talent and somehow believed they were invincible.  They have relied on that mentality ever since.

The Habs Altered Identity

(Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)
(Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

The 2013-2014 version of the Canadiens dominated the first period and managed an early lead.  Sure, they buckled in the 2nd but their quick starts carried them through much of the season, all the way to April 5th, 2014 in fact, the last time the Habs smuggled a lead out of the first frame.

What changed? The Olympics altered the team’s identity for one.  The players that participated in the Sochi Olympics last February were exposed to and able to learn from the best of the best and emerged better players for it. Goaltender Carey Price became a national hero.  Defenseman P.K. Subban was humbled.  Both learned valuable lessons at important junctures in their careers and returned different players.

After the Olympics, the Habs struggled, mainly because Price was injured.  Price had, by that time, become the face of the franchise.

The other significant change was an unlikely win on March 15th, 2014.  Price returned from injury on a night when the Ottawa Senators were visiting.  The Sens managed a hard-fought 4-1 lead by the 5 minute mark of the third period.  With less than 3:30 to play the Habs brought fans to their feet with a jaw-dropping 3 goal tally to tie the game and force overtime. Defenseman Francis Bouillon scored in the extra frame to give the Habs a thrilling, albeit unfathomable, win; and the team’s confidence grew tenfold.

After that night, the Habs were unbeatable.  Confidence oozed through Price and forward. With Canada’s goaltender in nets and Subban ready to show the world what they’d missed (in Sochi), the team closed out the season with a remarkable 10-3-1 record.

They swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals despite being the underdogs.  They defeated the powerhouse Boston Bruins in 7 games and made their first appearance in the Conference Finals since 2009-2010.

They won because they believed they could and because they wanted it.  It was the right mix of talent, confidence and arrogance that propelled their individual games to new heights.

Team confidence peaked prior to Game 7 against the Bruins when Subban, now famously, remarked to the press:

“It’s going to be great,” Subban said. “I can’t wait for the crowd, the noise, the energy in the building. I can’t wait to take that all away from them.”

That kind of arrogance goes a long way when you need to win games, especially against a hated rival.

Of course, once Price was lost to injury during the Conference Finals against the New York Rangers the team floundered.  That’s not to say Dustin Tokarski didn’t do his job in nets as replacement, he did, but he wasn’t and isn’t the calming presence and confidence boost upon which the Habs roster has come to rely. The Habs had to soften their smugness with an unproven goaltender in nets, and they lost.

Confusing Arrogance with Confidence

Fast forward to this season and the Habs are playing a very similar game.  Price exudes confidence on any given night, whether the team in front of him is prepared or not; and knowing that their all world goaltender is back there to make a spectacular save when needed has allowed the young Habs roster to remain overconfident in their ability to win games:

It’s natural for young athletes to confuse confidence with arrogance.  They are young, talented players who are doing what they love.  There is strength in feeling invincible.  It’s hard not to have a sense of pride with two superstars in your lineup and a third player developing into one.  It’s even harder for veteran players not to feed off that youthful energy, even when they know better.

But, as with any young team, arrogance will get the better of them, because mistakes are taken for granted and talent can’t always make up for a lack of discipline or inconsistenct play. The Habs are squandering games because their lazy or bad habits are catching up with them.  Three straight losses and a stodgy shootout win against the worst team the NHL has seen in decades is an indication that the playing field is leveling out.  That the team isn’t good because they think they’re good, but because they play well.

It comes down to guidance, and this is where the coaching staff has to take responsibility for the team trending down.

Therrien’s Role

Eyes on the Prize has extensively tracked head coach Michel Therrien’s failings but I don’t want to go into that here.  Despite some hair-pulling decisions, I haven’t given up on a coach whose team is winning despite itself.

However, the Habs struggles, especially their weak starts, are easily attributable to unpreparedness, as much as presumptuousness, and it’s the coach’s job to make sure his team is ready to face their opponent when the puck drops.

There are other decisions that are easy to second guess when the team is struggling.  Suffice to say that the coaching staff has yet to do their job well this season; but at the same time the endless search for the perfect shot on the power play hasn’t helped either, especially when the simplest play would be the best option for scoring a goal.  There are plenty of bad line combinations, for sure, but there are also plenty of pretty passing plays that may dazzle but fail to do the most important job, the only job, which is put the puck in the net.

Moving Forward

The Habs are 14 games into a long season and already the exhilarating memories from last season are fading.  It’s time to put the past behind them and focus on the season and the job ahead.  Pulling out wins despite low possession numbers or slow starts or even a horrendous power play is not exciting anymore, it’s disconcerting.  Panic is setting in, as it does when the Habs are involved.

It’s time for the team to show it’s true talent and discipline, to shine from puck drop to the final tick on the clock; because the truth is, until now we’ve only seen a continuation of what came before.  It’s time to start fresh and take hold of 2014-2015.

Of course, that doesn’t mean they should lose their self-assurance.  I mean, when you can do this you should be a little arrogant: