Canadiens Can Learn & Improve From Rough Week of Losing

The Montreal Canadiens had another week of pain for its fan base playing three games and putting up a record of 0-2-1. One loss was due to a dominant performance by the Colorado Avalanche that left no doubt to the outcome. The other two games were close, one-goal losses to Vancouver Canucks and the Nashville Predators. However, that does little to calm the fans that want more.

This week we will look at three items that fans can take away as positives looking ahead in what will feel like a very long season.

Canadiens Special Teams

Special teams have been a significant issue for the Canadiens all season long. With an anemic power play (PP) and a very passive penalty kill (PK), they haven’t produced to a level any reasonable person would call an acceptable level. This week, however, there has been significant improvement.

The PP in those three games has seen improvement. In the prior week — 20 Nov to 26 Nov — the Canadiens had a weak 14.2 percent on the PP. However, in this week’s three games played, they made a dramatic improvement to 18.2 percent, which is 15th overall in the NHL in that time. The addition of Ryan Poehling to the units and an emphasis on more traffic in front of the net has seemed to help in the short term.

Ryan Poehling Montreal Canadiens
Ryan Poehling, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The PK in the prior week was a putrid 40 percent, which means that 60 percent of the time, the opposition was scoring. Those odds do nothing to help the Canadiens, especially when they are already the worst defensive team in the NHL with 93 goals against; the Buffalo Sabres are 31st with only 90 goals allowed.

This week, the Habs’ PK unit made a dramatic improvement, climbing to a whopping 90 percent, placing them ninth in NHL over that span. Assistant coach Luke Richardson has begun using Alexander Romanov to improve upon the defensive zone mobility and employing a more aggressive puck pursuit, especially in the neutral zone, which has made it much more difficult for opposing PP units to enter the zone with possession or generate scoring chances.

Come Along Now, Entertain Us Ducharme

The Canadiens have entered the dog days of the NHL season mired in 29th place in the NHL. With all honesty, the fans are ready to accept that the season is lost and focus on improving through the draft, especially if this year’s draft pick is in the top 10. With that said, even fans who want to watch young players like Nick Suzuki won’t be flocking to the Bell Center if the Habs aren’t giving them something entertaining to enjoy.

Nick Suzuki Montreal Canadiens
Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Canadiens are a poor defensive team, allowing the most goals against and allowing 33.7 shots against per game, which isn’t a recipe for success. However, it can be entertaining if there is a focus on their own offence. In the game vs. the Avalanche, there was little pressure created offensively, especially on the PP where they failed to register a shot. They allowed two breakaways and a shorthanded goal, which led to a fan throwing a jersey onto the ice.

The Canadiens followed up that effort with an entertaining one in Nashville. It’s not just about goals. It’s about effort, and Micheal Pezzetta proved it. 

Fans love to see gritty effort, big hits. Some even enjoy fights when they sprout from a game organically as this one did. It also seemed to wake up the Canadiens bench, as they played with some jump for long periods of the game. While Jake Allen and his 40 saves were the main reason the Habs earned a point, fans loved watching the younger players generate some exciting moments.

Habs Losing Without Purpose

Even if the Canadiens can provide entertaining hockey over the course of this season, in what is now considered a lost season, there needs to be a purpose. Professional players don’t “tank,” as they are playing for jobs, contracts and pride. Instead, it falls to the coaching staff to find novel ways to compete, and in the case of a team mired in a losing season, a way to help develop the younger players to be able to step up next season.

Related: Jeff Gorton’s Past Points to Habs Future

With a roster depleted by nearly a dozen injuries, including losing Brendan Gallagher to Covid protocols, head coach Dominique Ducharme has been heavily reliant on his remaining veterans in the hopes of keeping games competitive. However, he has done so to the detriment of the youth on his roster while also depriving himself of options that can help the team remain competitive.

Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens
Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

One issue is the usage of Cole Caufield. Since his recall from the Laval Rocket in the American Hockey League, he has been used sparingly, averaging around 14 minutes per game. With that said, it is the role that he fills that must be looked at. Ducharme must place him to his strengths as a top-six forward who plays on a top PP unit. 

Against Nashville, he promoted Caufield to a second line with Christian Dvorak, and he showed promise with a two-point night. Caufield even has over two minutes of ice time on the PP in that game, gaining a point in the process. However, when the Canadiens had a five-on-three PP opportunity, Caufield’s reward for his solid offensive play wasn’t more ice time, but it was a benching in favor of veteran Mathieu Perrault. With all the open ice, it is an odd coaching decision to not use one of the team’s best shooters with a two-man advantage in a situation where you can create a two-goal lead.

It will be a long season with many ups and downs. But Habs fans can start to look at the return of the many injured players, the youth, and watch as the on-ice product may not generate many wins but becomes a more entertaining brand of hockey. 

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