At first glance, the results aren’t awful, but when you burrow down a little, it becomes plain the Montreal Canadiens haven’t been a terribly good hockey team for a few weeks now.
It’s become more obvious in the last four games – three losses, including a blowout against the Los Angeles Kings, and a turgid 1-0 win against the Eastern Conference laggard New York Islanders – but it’s been true through all of December.
Put on a curve, the advanced possession metrics – which measure shots, attempts on net and blocked shots – demonstrate a steady downward slide since mid-November.
That wasn’t reflected in wins and losses at the time, but the chickens are coming home to roost – it’s hard to win if the other team has the puck all the time.
The low-water mark came on Dec. 2 against the New Jersey Devils, a game the Habs won 3-2 despite being a distant second in virtually every facet of the game but the scoreboard.
Followed a fortuitous shootout win against the Devils 48 hours later, a white-knuckle 2-1 result against the Boston Bruins, and a narrow victory against the hapless Buffalo Sabres where they were carried by the fourth line.
They were 4-0, and no one was very happy about it.
“You look at that week … that’s when things started to turn,” captain Brian Gionta said. “It’s basically what we’re doing.
“We’re not helping ourselves in a lot of situations, whether it’s turnovers, lack of support, which doesn’t generate much offence, our goalies are giving us a chance to win every night, but we’re not doing enough to create.”
The third period of Sunday’s 2-1 loss to the woeful Florida Panthers was a handy illustration of what Gionta is talking about.
After Alex Galchenyuk narrowed the gap with a power-play goal – the Habs first since Dec. 2, it snapped an 0-for-16 string – they were frequently bottled up by the Panthers fore-check, turning pucks over in the neutral zone and at the opposing blueline.
Indeed, both Florida goals – Jesse Winchester’s at 4 minutes 44 seconds of the second period, and Nick Bjugstad’s just 2:26 later – were initiated by the Habs losing the puck just inside the Panthers blueline.
“Our game’s not perfect right now. We’ve gone through ups and downs already this season, when we’re being successful, it’s because we’re supporting one another,” said P.K. Subban, whose assist on Galchenyuk’s goal was just his second point of the month. “We’re close to each other … we’re on the puck, you have to do those things consistently to win in this league.”
So the big question: why isn’t it happening?
Is it because the Habs have trouble beating bad teams? They’re 13-5 against losing teams this season.
Is it because they’re bad in the second half of back-to-back games? Nope, until Sunday’s loss they’d won four in a row.
Head coach Michel Therrien said after the Florida game his charges have “played a lot of hockey over the past three weeks.”
“It’s really demanding. They’re human beings, they’re giving all they’ve got,” he said.
For a team with “No Excuses” plastered all over its dressing room, that sounds suspiciously like one. But the compressed schedule does present its share of obstacles.
The Habs have stopped scoring goals, just three in their last four games – Galchenyuk’s foray to the crease to score his 10th of the season was a rare instance of successful net crashing.
It’s true the recent dip in form has been papered over by the penalty kill (25-for-26 since Nov. 27) and the play of goalies Carey Price and Peter Budaj, who was typically good Sunday.
Montreal has feasted on the Metropolitan Division this season (10 of their 20 wins have come against the Metro), and their three next games come against tough Western Conference opponents (Phoenix, St. Louis and Nashville).
The seven-day Christmas break on Dec. 21 can’t come soon enough.