Canadiens Still in Playoff Hunt at Quarter Mark for Better or Worse

It’s fitting the Montreal Canadiens passed the 2022-23 quarter mark with a game a game against the Chicago Blackhawks, who are in full-on tank mode. Winning 3-2 in a shootout on Nov. 25, the Canadiens are now a relatively impressive 11-9-1, just outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

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However, “relatively” is the operative word, especially seeing as the Habs needed a shootout to beat the Hawks, who outshot the Habs 32-23 in the game. So, general manager Kent Hughes needs to take this opportunity, namely American Thanksgiving, at which point three quarters of teams in playoff spots historically go on to clinch, to take stock of his team and its postseason potential. Here are the top takeaways from the Habs’ first 21 games:

3. Canadiens Still Lack No. 1 Goalie

To his credit, backup Samuel Montembeault has exceeded expectations, to the point he started his second straight game against the Blackhawks, impressively making 30 saves on 32 shots. As a result, he improved to 5-2-1, with a 2.48 goals-against average (GAA) and .924 save percentage (SV%), a far cry for the better from the 8-18-6 record, 3.77 GAA and .891 SV% he posted as the Habs’ most used goalie during the last-place 2021-22 season.

Sam Montembeault Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens goalie Samuel Montembeault – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So, there’s undeniable progress being shown on his part, which is of course good. However, he’s also played the weaker teams between him and starter Jake Allen. Combined with the relatively small sample size of eight appearances, no one should be penciling Montembeault in as the solution to the Canadiens’ goaltending woes. Hughes himself has stated he doesn’t see anyone currently with the team capable of taking the reins left behind by Carey Price.

For his part, Allen has generally played well, playing behind a largely inexperienced defensive corps. However, at the end of the day, with a 6-7 record, 3.61 GAA and .891 SV%, Allen isn’t getting the job done. Maybe Montembeault fares better with more starts, but no one should place the weight of a playoff push squarely on his shoulders.

With the Habs having given up a 24th-ranked 33.3 shots per game, it would pretty much be the case. Only one team below the Canadiens in that category are currently in a playoff spot and, unfortunately, the Canadiens don’t have the same firepower up front as the Edmonton Oilers (34.2) to make up for the defensive miscues, which, to be fair, are to be expected with Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris and Arber Xhekaj being 20, 22 and 21 years of age respectively.

2. Young Guns, Led by Caufield, Suzuki, Getting It Done

Even if Montembeault and Allen have covered for the defense on occasion, it’s arguably the Habs’ offense that is leading to wins. The biggest difference-makers up front are Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki and their primary linemate Kirby Dach, who together set a franchise record: It’s the first time three players who are 23 and under have each scored 17 or more points through the first 20 games of a season.

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As an illustration, in the Canadiens’ 11 wins, the team has scored 44 goals (four per game). The Boston Bruins lead the league with that same exact goal-per-game clip. Overall though, the Canadiens are at 2.95, which is ranked 20th, pointing to a lack of sustainability.

Another indication is Suzuki’s team-leading 24 points, earned off the tip of a stick that is shooting at an incredibly high 26.1% (that is also leading the team). Suzuki’s a career 12.7% shooter, so he’s unlikely to score the 47 goals for which he’s currently on pace (even if only because he scored an admittedly perfectly fine 21 in 2021-22).

Nick Suzuki Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens forward Nick Suzuki – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

All alone, the offense the Canadiens are producing is of course a good sign, especially with Hughes having said from the point at which he was hired that he’s looking for an up-tempo style of play. It’s when you look at the offense as part of a bigger picture that it becomes clear the Habs have much further to go before they can consider this season a success, one way or another.

1. Canadiens Mediocre in Truest Sense of Term

The term “mediocre” has been hijacked to have a negative connotation. Literally speaking, when describing a sports team like the Canadiens, it simply means they’re in the middle of the pack. So, in the truest sense of the term, it’s not negative. It’s just not positive either.

Oh, there are positive takeaways from the first quarter of 2022-23 from the Canadiens’ perspective. See No. 2 above, for example. However, looking at that big picture, there is still a lot of work to be done. Some fans may see that statement as needlessly negative, but, objectively speaking, it holds true whether you’re of the belief the Canadiens should try to make the playoffs or lean into their rebuilding efforts even further.

If Hughes and company are going to make a playoff push, they’re two points back of the Carolina Hurricanes for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. That may not seem like much and it isn’t, but they’re also just two games above .500. That mark ties the highest they’ve been all season as a consistently .500 team for all intents and purposes.

Kent Hughes, Montreal Canadiens GM
Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes – (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Look at it this way: Two games above .500 at the start of the season (2-0 for example) represents a drastically different points percentage than two games above .500 at the end (42-40). The Canadiens are going to have to start putting wins together to stand a chance, with the Washington Capitals having earned the last spot in the East in 2021-22 with 100 points.

If on the other hand, Hughes is intent on rebuilding, as he probably should be, based on his perceived intent to start the season, the Canadiens are literally ranked 16th of 32 teams right now. That’s 10 points ahead of the last-place Anaheim Ducks and three points up on the 22nd-ranked Nashville Predators for the projected lowest-percentage shot at drafting first overall (based on last season’s NHL Draft Lottery rules).

So, the Canadiens have decisions to make regarding which road to take for the remainder of the season. Keep in mind, going for it would likely call for Hughes to throw previously laid logical plans by the wayside. So, instead of conceivably flipping Sean Monahan for a first-round pick at the trade deadline, the Canadiens would forego the hypothetical future(s) in question to win in the present. There are a lot of reasons why such a decision reeks of bad asset management, with, for example, fellow-center Christian Dvorak signed to a deal that is more in line with an actually realistic timeline for the Canadiens to contend.

Related: Canadiens on Right Track to Becoming Next Avalanche

The Canadiens and their fans are flying high right now on the strength of two straight wins that have brought them within reach of a theoretical playoff spot. However, in the case of the win over the Blackhawks (or the one over the 31st-ranked Columbus Blue Jackets two days earlier), any celebration should be put on hold.

The Canadiens were far from impressive in either game. Plus, those are games the Canadiens should be winning anyway, just like the 6-4 loss on Nov. 17 to the Blue Jackets last week… maybe even the 7-2 loss to the 25th-ranked Buffalo Sabres on Nov. 22. They should be winning them, because they’ve proven themselves better than most expected, based on generally superior goaltending playing behind an inexperienced defensive corps with a lot of potential for the future and an incredibly talented forward group. However, the Canadiens also have much more to prove before they can be considered good enough. It’s something for Hughes to consider headed toward halfway mark, all the way into the trade deadline.