There’s a lesson in all of this.
Simply stated: in the first game back from a mid-season international tournament, always take the under.
The Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens fumbled and bumbled their way through Wednesday night’s post-Olympic curtain-raiser – passes went off skates, rushes petered out, shots hit crests, this was not the eye-candy to which hockey fans were treated in Sochi.
The Habs were the prime offenders – if Detroit was rusty, the good ship Canadiens’ hull showed more corrosion than paint.
In the end, Montreal scratched out a fortunate overtime point when Brian Gionta’s stuffed a puck past Jimmy Howard with just 28.7 seconds to play in the third and the Habs’ net empty.
Detroit’s Gustav Nyquist replied in kind, scoring the winner with 27.3 ticks left in overtime – the Habs can’t be disappointed with the result.
They were out-shot 30-20, out-chanced by a sizable margin; at five-on-five, it wasn’t close.
According to extraskater.com, the Wings even-strength Fenwick score while the game was within one goal topped out at 64.1 per cent (in essence, the Habs only generated 35.9 per cent of the shots and shot attempts in that situation).
“They were doing a good job of bottling us up, we just weren't putting any pressure on them,” Gionta said.
That’s an understatement.
It’s also a trend. Since the beginning of December, the Habs’ possession statistics have been on a sharp downward trend – why it matters: possession tends to correlate closely with winning.
Montreal is 28 in the league in goals scored while five-on-five, furthermore, they’re also in the bottom third in terms of shots allowed.
Their power-play is 7-for-53 since Jan. 1, and failed on two occasions – although the good news is it generated some pressure. Leading scorer P.K. Subban even managed to let loose with a couple of rockets from the point, an option opponents have worked hard to eliminate.
Perhaps it’s unfair to expect the Habs to iron out what ails them in the space of a two-week break.
Indeed, the layoff may be part of the problem, according to coach Michel Therrien.
“The cohesiveness and execution just weren't there. For both teams, by the way,” he said.
The Habs will play the back half of a back-to-back against the powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday, but Therrien reckoned there’s no better tonic for a sluggish team than to play more hockey.
“The more games you play, the better the execution gets, so I certainly don't have anything against it,” he said.
If there is to be a bright spot in this game beyond the always-useful overtime point, it was that 20-year-old Alex Galchenyuk returned from a six-week absence because of a broken hand, and provided an offensive spark.
“I felt okay in the first and second, in the third period I felt like I got my legs under me,” he said.
Several NHL coaches have spoken admiringly of the game plan Babcock concocted for Team Canada, few of them have the horses to carry it out.
On the strength of their see-saw season, Wings fans could be forgiven for thinking the latter description fits their favourite team.
For 59 or so minutes, Detroit did a passable imitation of the last squad with red-and-white jerseys to feature coach Babcock behind the bench – which makes the Habs, let’s see now, Latvia?
If that seems unkind, consider that after going down 1-0 on a Todd Bertuzzi power-play goal in the first, Montreal mustered precisely two shots in the second period, and went more than half of it (12:31 in fact) without even one.
The two shots set a new season-low for a single period.
More consequential than the result for Montreal is the status of Olympic champion goaltender Carey Price, who left the team’s skate after taking just one shot, favouring his right leg.
Before the game Therrien said “during the Olympics, Carey aggravated a lower-body injury. He will not play the next two games and he’s day-to-day.”
In Sochi, Price demonstrated how dominant he can be, it’s not an exaggeration to say the Habs wouldn’t be in contention for a home playoff seeding if it weren’t for their starting goaltender.
The team’s play at even-strength against the Wings provided an object lesson in offensive futility – this has been the dominant narrative in Habs-land since the end of November.
Wednesday’s game also kicked off a stretch that will see the Habs play seven games in 11 days, if Price hasn’t sufficiently recovered before Montreal heads off on a Western road swing next week – or returns at less than 100 per cent – it could augur poorly.
Peter Budaj is a capable backup, as he showed Wednesday making 28 saves on 30 shots, but a backup nonetheless.
But Price isn’t the only Canadian Olympian in the Habs’ fold, and if Subban didn’t play much in Sochi, he was front and centre against the Wings and will continue to be. Subban, who leads the team in scoring, eclipsed his total ice time at the Games midway through the second.
From the first shift, where he scooped up the puck and rounded the net before setting sail for the Red Wings’ zone, to a crunching collision with Justin Abdelkader (and a half-hearted invitation to drop the gloves), it was apparent Subban was determined to be a factor.
His enthusiasm got the better of him on a first-period power-play, a shove on a prone Darren Helm was deemed by referee Darcy Burchell to qualify as roughing – a few moments later Bertuzzi banged a puck past Budaj after Johan Franzen bamboozled Habs defenceman Jarred Tinordi.
In overtime, Subban drew a penalty on Tomas Tatar, but referee Chris Lee also whistled the defenceman for embellishment.
“We could debate (the call),” Therrien said, “but I don't have any comment."
Neither team could benefit from the ensuing three-on-three, although it's easy to see why Detroit general-manager Ken Holland thinks it would be a good idea for the league to go with that format instead of a shootout.
Before the game Subban, the reigning James Norris Memorial Trophy winner said he bore no ill feelings toward Babcock for his limited ice time in Sochi.
“Obviously you want to play, but it’s out of my control . . . listen, I’m walking away from this thing with a gold medal and the reality is everybody probably deserves to play, but as long as we win I don’t care, I don’t think anybody in Canada cares,” he said.
The Bell Centre showed it cares deeply about Team Canada’s success, giving a loud ovation to members of both the men’s and women’s squads
Babcock was cheered as loudly as home team Olympians Subban and Price, clad for this occasion in his Sochi team jacket and walking gingerly.
The gold medalists – along with two members of the Habs’ staff and Holland – shared the carpet with several members of the women’s Olympic champions (golden goal scorer Marie-Philip Poulin was applauded raucously) as the crowd sang a rafter-shaking rendition of O Canada.
“It was kind of a cool thing, P.K. yelled to me ‘Hey Babs let’s sing the anthem one more time together,’ and I thought that was real special,” Babcock said. “It was great to have him and (Price) honoured in front of their fans. Anytime you win an Olympic gold medal it's a special, special, thing and when it’s hockey and you get to share it with Canadians and your Canadian fans it’s special.”
Babcock also commended the Habs for making sure to hail the contribution of the women’s team and their thrilling come-from-behind triumph.
“It was great for the girls because in the National Hockey League you get lots of recognition but when you're a Canadian and women Olympic athlete you don't get as much recognition as you deserve. So for them to be honoured here tonight I thought was real special,” he said.