It’s a common impulse, when things lurch violently sideways, to try and identify a guilty party.
In the eyes of many Montreal Canadiens fans – and, it appears, some anonymous detractors within the NHL team – part of the problem in this wretched half-season was erstwhile sniper Michael Cammalleri.
But complicated questions seldom have simple answers, and there is more than just one thing wrong with this team.
Any incipient Habs revival will necessarily involve a return to form on the part of key veterans, like Tomas Plekanec, Cammalleri’s former centre, and Scott Gomez – the poster boy for underachievement.
Gomez showed brief flashes of brilliance in a win over the New York Rangers last Sunday, now it’s up to Plekanec to show his wares with beefy winger René Bourque, who was acquired from the Calgary Flames in exchange for Cammalleri, and the similarly large-framed Mike Blunden.
It’s not that Plekanec has been bad, exactly, he just isn’t as consistently good as he’s been in the past.
“Definitely, I want to play better, but everybody has ups and downs and you have to get through it … you just need to stay calm, basically, and don’t listen to outside things. Believe in your job and what you’re doing,” he said Tuesday.
Though Plekanec has nine goals and 31 points in 45 games, the man he is tied with for third in team scoring, David Desharnais, has replaced him as the team’s de facto first-line centre despite playing fewer minutes (although Plekanec’s duties on the Habs second-ranked power-play account for much of the disparity).
Plekanec’s ratio of points per game is off his typical pace, and while some of that is surely due to playing with fellow strugglers Cammalleri (nine goals as a Hab) and the now-injured Brian Gionta (eight goals), they’re not the ones missing on breakaways.
It’s to wonder whether Plekanec’s best offensive moments this season haven’t come with his team short-handed.
Plekanec, who earns $5-million (U.S.) this season and has averaged more ice time than any other forward on the team, is also a team-worst minus-11 – granted, he’s often playing against the opposition’s top line.
One of the finest two-way forwards in the game when at his best, Plekanec is on pace for his lowest goal total in six years, and he’s taken a typical season’s worth of penalty minutes in just 45 games.
Trading for Bourque was sold a way to add some heft to Montreal’s forward lines, it should soon become clear whether it will provide a springboard for Plekanec.
One thing that’s apparent after one game: the Czech playmaker is pleased to have him, and to be surrounded by big men.
“It’s definitely different, but it’s great to play with that kind of guy, you know where he’s going, he’s going every time to the net,” he said. “When you put the puck at the net you know he’s going to be there, it’s pretty easy to play with a guy like that.”
The remark can be interpreted unkindly as a slight against Cammalleri and Gionta, and it may, given the recent hysteria around the team.
None of that will matter if results follow, particularly on the NHL’s worst power-play, which along with a spate of injuries has undermined the Habs season – as has their league-worst record in the shootout.
Here’s a tasty morsel for the glass half-empty crowd: on Jan. 18, 2011, the Buffalo Sabres were in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, 10 points out of a playoff spot.
The Canadiens, eight points out going into Tuesday’s action, have an example to follow – Buffalo finished seventh.
A statistical perusal shows that least one team in each of the last four seasons has gone from .500 or below in the first half to the playoffs with a second-half renaissance.
With three games this week against conference opponents – Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs – the time to prove this team is better than its record indicates is now.
To have a realistic shot at the postseason, the Habs need to win 23 or 24 of their remaining 37 games – one online statistical-modelling site gives them roughly a 15-per-cent chance of pulling it off.
“We can’t hang our heads and think it’s over, you have to keep going, you never know,” defenceman Josh Gorges said.
That doesn’t mean the atmosphere in the room is any lighter.
“It’s tough. Everyday you’re reminded of it, you can’t get away from it, it’s just the reality of where we are,” Gorges said. “But the great thing about hockey it’s not a 40-game season.”