It's no secret why the Montreal Canadiens are flirting with last place in the NHL's Eastern Conference.
A power play that has consistently been among the league leaders since the 2004-05 lockout campaign now sits last in the 30-team league with a meagre 12.3 per cent success rate, scoring only about half as often as the leading Vancouver Canucks (23.8 per cent).
That record of futility does much to explain why the Canadiens (17-21-8) have scored two or fewer goals in 24 of their 46 games this season.
For centre Tomas Plekanec, who played on units that topped the NHL for two years running in 2006-07 and 2007-08, the problem is mostly in their heads.
“It starts with decision making,” Plekanec said Tuesday. “We have good personnel.
“We have guys that can move the puck, guys that can shoot, guys that can stand in front of the net and be a good screen. We have all that, but I'd say it's decision making — to make the plays that are there happen.”
Coach Randy Cunneyworth, who runs the power play, had a “lengthy” meeting and video session with his units and then had them work during practice to get them primed for road games Friday in Pittsburgh and Saturday in Toronto.
The Canadiens are coming off a 3-0 loss on home ice to the Washington Capitals in which they went 0-for-7 with the man advantage, their third straight game without a power-play goal.
The lack of success makes it tougher as players grip their sticks tighter and try to force the puck into the net.
“You're pushing things, pressing a lot where you want to try things but you don't because you (might) get your pass intercepted or your shot blocked,” said Plekanec. “One shot goes in and it would change the game, but we can't seem to find it.
“Sometimes I feel like we talk about it, but when we jump in there we're not executing the plays like we want to. You can have one (player) standing here and one standing there, but you have to read. You have to find a seam to be open for that pass, find a seam to make the pass. All those things need to be together and we don't have it at all.”
In their best years, the Canadiens had a brilliant quarterback in Andrei Markov running the power play, but the Russian has missed most of the last three seasons with a pair of knee injuries. Markov has not played at all this season and won't return until some time after the all-star break, if at all.
Roman Hamrlik picked up some of the slack, and James Wisniewski filled in nicely last season, but both were allowed to go as free agents last summer as the Canadiens anticipated, wrongly, that Markov would be ready.
Now Cunneyworth is looking for answers.
The interim coach who replaced the fired Jacques Martin on Dec. 17 is not averse to changing up his units to find a winning combination. But roles are well defined, such as P.K. Subban and Yannick Weber as the shooters, Tomas Kaberle and Chris Campoli making passes from the point, and Plekanec and Max Pacioretty playing the half wall.
“We're trying to do things the same way only quicker, getting shots through, getting traffic in numbers,” Cunneyworth said. “It's all about execution.”
He hinted strongly that Campoli, a healthy scratch the last two games, would be back in the lineup in Pittsburgh.
He didn't say who would come out, but it may be veteran Hal Gill, whose ice time has been cut in recent games and who played a season-low 8:55 against Washington. Gill is a key member of the Canadiens penalty killing team, which ranks second in the league to New Jersey with a 90.2 per cent kill rate.
“No matter who comes out, it's important to note, you take something out to get something else in,” said Cunneyworth. “We'll look to consider Campoli to help our power play and improve our offence.”
The Montreal power play has been at 19.2 per cent or better every season since 2005-06. Only two seasons ago, it was second in the league at 21.8 per cent before dropping to seventh at 19.7 per cent in 2010-11.
But it has struggled from the start this season. It was at a woeful 11.7 per cent when general manager Pierre Gauthier sent veteran Jaroslav Spacek to the Carolina Hurricanes for veteran point man Tomas Kaberle in December.
His arrival gave the unit a quick jolt, but it has tapered off. In 17 games with Kaberle, the power play is clicking at 13.8 per cent.
Without a decent power play, making the playoffs will be tough, although the New York Rangers have managed to build the league's best won-lost record with only the 24th best power play at 14.3 per cent.
“That's definitely one of the biggest reasons,” Plekanec said of the Canadiens' woes. “We talk every other day about special teams being a big key.
“We have a great (penalty kill). It's obvious that if we would get just a small percentage more goals on the power play, the games would be different. It's not an excuse, but a lot of points are right there on the power play.”
The lack of scoring has been tough on goaltender Carey Price, whose 15-17-8 record does not reflect how well he's played in most games. In five of his losses, the Canadiens were shut out. In another six, they scored only one goal. He has two shutouts of his own and four of his wins were in 2-1 games.
Cunneyworth did not confirm it, but it is expected that backup Peter Budaj will start against the Penguins. When Price was asked if he was starting he said ”I don't believe so.” Budaj is coming off a 4-1 win Sunday over the Rangers.
Price should be in goal against the Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
Pittsburgh and Toronto are two of the teams' Montreal hope to chase for a playoff spot. Losing those games would deepen the hole already dug.
“The pressure is heightened by the situation we're in,” Cunneyworth said. “We can't be saving anything for a later date.”
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