The NHL season psychological threshold that is the All-Star game is now behind us. Cars were given away, selfies were taken, ugly jerseys worn and interest worn out. The over-indulgence of GoPros couldn’t hide the fact that players sleepwalked through this exercise in futility trying not to hurt themselves, never mind make it interesting.
Now it’s back to business for NHL players. The last stretch before what is the Christmas equivalent for the NHL enthusiast, and in my opinion should be a national holiday (because really, how much work actually gets done on that day?), the Trade Deadline.
In the last game before the break, the Montreal Canadiens were taking on the NHL’s second best record in the Nashville Predators. The Habs started the game with their minds in the Bahamas. It looked as though the Canadiens were to be dominated yet again by one of the best teams in the league, finishing the first period trailing in shots on net, 14 to 4. Again , thanks to Carey Price, the score was kept to a nil-nil tie, and the game still within reach.
Luckily for the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge, they weren’t the only ones with a vacation mindset. The referees made a few questionable calls in Montreal’s favor enraging Nashville’s bench boss Peter Laviolette who stayed on the ice after the game to berate them. The Canadiens took advantage of the Preds’ then 79.37% Penalty Kill efficiency, scoring 2 goals on 3 power play opportunities.
Quietly, the Montreal Canadiens seem to be surmounting their most nagging problem of the season. In their last five games, the Habs have a record of 3-1-1. In that five game span, Montreal has scored 7 power play goals in 22 opportunities. A 31.8% efficiency rate. To begin the season, the Canadiens needed 50 power play opportunities spread over 18 games to get 7 power play goals.
Granted, in those 5 games, Nashville, Columbus and the New York Islanders had penalty kill efficiency rates in the 70’s and those were the games the Habs scored on the man advantage. Remains that Canadiens did not squander those opportunities. Those are the times to work out the kinks in your strategy and build confidence and they did that. The Habs took their first steps at getting better, the challenge now is to not let that confidence slip away.
The General and the Bazooka
The Habs’ first pairing must be credited with its success. Andrei Markov has been the architect of the man advantage unit, earning five assists on the Canadiens’ seven goals. With 3 goals and 10 assists, Markov is the most productive member of his club on the power play.
On the right side, P.K. Subban has been his team’s best asset. Receiving Markov’s passes, Subban one-timed them to the back of the net on 5 separate occasions. Three of those goals have come in the last five games. P.K. Subban is also building on his reputation for being clutch in big moments for his team. Of his three power play goals, one was a game tying goal against Columbus, one was the score opener against the Islanders, and the third was the overtime game winning goal against Nashville.
Up front, Alex Galchenyuk is making a name for himself on the power play unit. With a goal and two assists in the last five games, the 20-year-old is cementing is spot as one of the team’s most dangerous scorer behind Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec.
The most dangerous forward at even strength, Max Pacioretty is in a three-way tie for fourth in PP points (7) with Alex Galchenyuk and David Desharnais. Earning two goals and an assist in that same 5 games sample size.
It’s good news for the Canadiens that the power play threat is dispersed among its players and not focused on only Subban or Pacioretty. The supporting cast of Gallagher, Desharnais and Gonchar are contributing as well and Nathan Beaulieu is getting some quality chances each game. The Habs will need their power play to be efficient to keep their spot in the standings. The competition will be increasingly tougher as more teams will fight for a playoff spot and the schedule much less forgiving. The Habs have played 45 games in 110 days so far and will have to play the next 36 games in 75 days.
Lump of Cole
The Montreal Canadiens will try to keep their luck rolling against the mediocre Dallas Stars at the Bell Centre. In contrast to the Nashville Predators who had yet to lose two games in a row before facing the Habs, the Stars have been plagued by losing streaks this year. Another one might be on the way. In their last game before the break, Lindy Ruff lost his hottest player in a 3-1 loss against Boston.
Former Hab Erik Cole, who had 10 points in his last 10 games, suffered an undisclosed upper body injury after taking a hit in the corner during a penalty kill in the first period. No date has been set for his return and he is sure to miss the game against the Canadiens.
Even though they are without their hottest player and their best prospect – Valeri Nichushkin is still recovering from hip surgery – , the Stars’ offense is still dangerous. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn both have eight points in their last ten games and are 2nd and 28th respectively in points among the league. Seguin is also tied for first with Rick Nash for the most goals in the league with 28.
Carey Price will once again be counted on to make big saves and keep his team in the game. He should face less shots than he has in his last few games. The Stars have a RoadCorsiF % of 49.4.
In 20 games on the road, the Stars have a 10-8-2 record, 44 GF and 48 GA and average 30.4 shots per 60 minutes.
In 22 games at home, the Canadiens have a 15-5-2 record, 49 GF and 36 GA and kept their opposition shooting to 28.4 per 60.
The Habs will try to keep their power play hot against Dallas who averages a 78.98% efficiency on the penalty kill and have been shorthanded 15 times in their last 5 games.
This is the type of game the Montreal Canadiens build their success on. They can’t let that one slip away as every point will count from now on if they want to grab the top spot of their division and their conference. Marc Bergevin has talked to a lot of GMs around the league which would suggest that he is looking to tweak his team. Almost every player is auditioning for the playoffs starting now. It’s up to them to play in a way that keeps them from being shipped.