Most fans are optimistic about their team’s future at the beginning of the season and I was no different concerning the Canadiens. I was one of those who looked at how well they played the (eventual Cup winning) Bruins in the playoffs last year and felt that team, with another season of experience for the youngsters and (one hopes) fewer injuries to key players, should easily make the playoffs this year.
And I didn’t worry that the Habs did not look all that impressive in the preseason. I don’t care much about the preseason any year because so much time is spent evaluating prospects that we do not see much of the team that will hit the ice opening day. And the last game of the exhibition season saw more-or-less the opening day roster perform in a very impressive manner.
So here we are seven games into the season and things don’t look all that rosy. What’s going on? Like all fans, I don’t really know. But a few things have struck me in the first couple of weeks of the Habs’ season.
First, the team has more often than not played very well, outshooting and outchancing the opposition. They have had leads in a number of the games they lost. So their play is not pathetically bad, even if their record is one of the worst in the league at this early juncture.
Second (and as usual for this team in recent years), scoring 5-on-5 is a problem. The few times they have scored multiple 5-on-5 goals in a game, so has the opposition en route to a victory. This leads me to the next observation. Carey Price has shown disturbing signs of something that was the case in the couple of seasons before his great campaign last year. I’m referring to his inability to “shut the door” after his team takes the lead. It seems that, whenever the Habs score to take the lead or tie a game they have been down in, Price gives up a goal not long after. Although these goals have by no means been all his fault, the fact remains that he has not been able to keep the opposition off the board when his team needs it. If this keeps up, the team in front of him will lose faith in him over time, as they did before. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to a team to have faith in their goaltender. They play with more confidence if they do not have to worry that a mistake will end up in their net.
My third observation concerns the coaching. Jacques Martin has come under fire this season (even more than usual in hockey-mad Montreal) for his line juggling. I have sometimes wondered this type of continual juggling sends a message to the players that they are essentially interchangeable, and that any mistake will be instantly punished. This may make players squeeze their sticks a little tighter as they try to play perfectly, rather than “just playing.”
In addition, I have also sometimes thought that JM’s focus on defensive responsibility and special teams play is more geared to giving poor or mediocre teams a shot at some success than to taking a good team to the next level.
The reader may note that I have not talked about the team’s special-teams play. That’s because I think that those issues will sort themselves out and the team will eventually return to its usual position among the league’s elite PP and PK units.