Some words carry more heft than others.
For instance, “mediocre” tends to make a biggish thud when it lands in an NHL dressing room.
Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price used precisely that term last weekend to qualify his team’s record through the first quarter of the NHL season. Sometimes, the truth hurts.
After 21 games, the Habs have a tenuous claim to a playoff spot with their 10-9-2 record, which doesn’t seem so bad until you consider only five of those wins have come in the past 14 games.
Montreal is still among the league’s elite defensive squads, but the early-season goal gusher has been reduced to a trickle.
So what’s happening here?
Basically, they’ve stopped scoring at even strength – in eight games since Nov. 1, the haul is just seven goals at 5-on-5 – something that needs to change if they are to take advantage of a pre-Christmas run of games against conference opponents.
The Canadiens are a terrific defensive team both at even strength (fifth in the league, having given up just 28 goals in 21 games) and short-handed (sixth in the NHL).
They’ve also blocked way more shots than any other team in the NHL (404), which demonstrates sterling commitment. It also means the opposition has the puck a lot.
“If you’re playing defence, you’re not playing offence, that’s how I look at it … saying we’re playing great defence isn’t exactly a compliment,” winger Max Pacioretty said.
Pro athletes hate to blame luck – it sounds suspiciously like an excuse – but poor fortune may explain part of the Habs scoring woes.
Their shooting percentage at even strength is only 5.8 per cent, fourth-worst in the NHL and well below their average in recent years. It’s also true, however, that a greater share of their shot attempts has missed the net than any other team.
“When you get chances, you have to make sure you’re hitting the net with them. But a lot of that has to do with the way teams play now. Even us, you’ve got guys in lanes blocking shots, it makes it harder, you’re trying to be more precise getting through,” said captain Brian Gionta (pointless in his past five games).
Opponents have been able to slow down the speedy Canadiens with a swarming forecheck – last Saturday, the New York Rangers regularly sent three to hound the Habs – and by forcing them into battles along the boards and in the corners.
So the coaches are adding some wrinkles. In practice Monday, the Habs worked on using an extra forward to avoid being outnumbered along the boards, and moving the puck more quickly.
“I think we’ve got to change things up a bit in terms of offence – too easy to read, I think everyone is playing the same way right now, back on our heels, when really we’ve got to be in the driver’s seat and controlling the game,” Pacioretty said.
The Habs compile various in-house statistics for the players, including regular individual tracking of scoring chances, which head coach Michel Therrien said are still occurring in ample numbers.
Pacioretty reckons the solution lies in being more aggressive: “We’ve just got to grind teams down by playing offence, I think we’re in our zone too much … worrying about guys on their team when really we should just be attacking them.”
In the long run, teams generally level out at something close to their average shooting percentage (last season, Montreal’s was 8.7 per cent at even strength).
That takes time, of course, which is in short supply in the NHL.
Therrien is doing what coaches do: juggling lines and breaking up the unit that to this point has been his most dangerous.
Spark-plug winger Brendan Gallagher will skate with Pacioretty and David Desharnais; his spot with Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk will be taken up by Brandon Prust.
In case anyone was under the misapprehension it’s going to get easier, the next test for the new-look lineup comes Tuesday, against the Minnesota Wild, who have won four in a row.