If the Montréal Canadiens started the season as one of the league’s pleasant surprises, they’ve since been brought down off the pedestal. After starting the year on a tear and winning six of their first eight games, they’ve quickly fallen in the standings and currently find themselves grasping to keep hold of fourth place (and the final playoff spot) in the NHL’s North Division.
For every positive development for the Canadiens, it seems to have been undone by an immediate downfall or a string of rotten luck. If Montréal wants to make it into the postseason and prove themselves there, they need to return consistency to their game.
The Win-Loss Record
On paper, the Habs’ current record of 17-9-9 is respectable enough. Storming out of the gate and running roughshod over their opponents helped them to second place in the North Division by mid-February. Ever since the home-and-home against the Toronto Maple Leafs back in February, the Canadiens have struggled to put together consecutive victories – they have been able to sometimes, but not often enough, especially in the tight context of an all-Canadian division.
Recently, the most consecutive victories they’ve managed is three, beating the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, and Ottawa Senators. Even some of those had a metaphorical asterisk next to them, as they came 10 days apart due to the team’s entrance into the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol.
The Good and the Bad
Along with the inconsistency in the win column, the Canadiens have been experiencing inconsistency in whom they get their victories against. The Habs can dominate the Edmonton Oilers with a 4-0 shutout victory (as they did on March 30), but they can also lose decisively to the Ottawa Senators, the league’s third-worst team. Their hot start was almost immediately followed by a losing skid that cost former head coach Claude Julien, assistant coach Kirk Muller, and goaltending coach Stéphane Waite their jobs. It took the Canadiens a while to buy into Dominique Ducharme’s system, losing three of four to begin Ducharme’s tenure.
As of late, though, it seems like the Habs are working their way to getting back on track. Their most recent comeback victory against the Oilers demonstrated what the team was searching for after what Sportsnet’s Eric Engels called an “identity crisis”. Oilers’ defenceman Darnell Nurse was able to key in on Montréal’s newfound identity, saying:
“You look at their team, they just come out and work, I don’t think there’s any real secret to it or their system. They come out working, they play hard, and they play well. It feels like every time we play them, they have a real solid game. That’s kind of their identity, to keep things out of the middle and work. That’s why they’re on the right side tonight.”Edmonton Oilers’ defenceman Darnell Nurse on the play of the Montréal Canadiens
In order for Montréal to have any success in the postseason, they’ll also have to work at fixing the individual imbalances on the team. The majority of their scoring comes from a combination of four players – Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Brendan Gallagher, and Jeff Petry. Veteran players like Phillip Danault, Jonathan Drouin, and Artturi Lehkonen have been quiet for the most part this season, posting a combined total of eight goals in a combined 96 games. They and the rest of the team need to step up if the Canadiens want a chance to get into the playoffs, especially due to the recent injury to Brendan Gallagher.
Despite the inconsistency, the Canadiens have managed to hold on to the last playoff spot in the North Division. If this most recent game against the Oilers is any indication, they may finally be able to set themselves up with steady play – enough to maybe move up in the standings and prepare for the postseason. If not, they’ll be in for a wild finish. If they don’t make it to the playoffs, it’ll be because of a crucial loss – if they do but get eliminated early, it’ll be because of a lack of balance on the scoresheet.