Well, the team has finally lost in regulation after getting away with some bad habits since the season started and surviving on the strength of their potent offence. With the loss to a stronger, better-organized Ducks team, no one can hide the bad habits under the proverbial rug anymore. The Habs have a problem on defence, and it's more obvious when playing better teams.
Part of the problem last night was Patrice Brisebois. When he was re-signed in September I didn't complain too much because I thought the team needed some veteran presence, and you won't find anyone who's more dedicated to the Montreal Canadiens than Breezer. He also came cheap and said publicly he was willing to accept a seventh-man role on defence. Add those facts to the truth that he can still make a decent outlet pass, he's helpful on the second wave of the PP and isn't completely embarrassing when used sparingly, and I was okay with it. But last night was the perfect example of why it was a mistake to bring Brisebois back, and it's not Breezer's fault...it's the coach's.
Basically, Guy Carbonneau insists on treating Brisebois like a viable top-six option on a nightly basis, and he isn't that player any longer. He's played in every game so far, although up until last night because of injuries. Fine. That's why he was hired. But when Carbonneau used the opportunity of having a full lineup last night to prove a point by sitting Ryan O'Byrne in favour of Breezer, it went too far. Brisebois was awful. He was weak in front of the net and in the corners, he gave the puck away repeatedly and he screened Halak on the first Ducks goal. In short, he was the wrong man to have on the ice for twenty minutes against an aggressive, strong team like Anaheim. O'Byrne might be making mistakes, but he has the potential to learn from them and improve. And last night showed he isn't worse than the guy who took his place.
The second problem I saw was Mike Komisarek. Komisarek is blocking shots and hitting, as usual. But he's mishandling the puck very often and he's getting exposed for his over-reliance on his partner, Andrei Markov, in the transition game. The opposition has figured out that Markov is the puck mover of the pair, so they're dumping it in on Komisarek's side, blocking his cross-ice pass to Markov and forcing #8 to make decisions that were traditionally Markov's to make. It may be that he's going through an adjustment period, but right now, it's pretty rough.
Of the others, Roman Hamrlik is as steady as he was last year, Francis Bouillon is as tough and Josh Gorges is showing just as much intelligence and heart. But, if O'Byrne truly isn't ready to be the number-four D on the team and Gorges is considered too small, then Gainey needs to bring in a defenceman. Because as likeable and useful as the current D-men are, they didn't win last year and without help they're not likely to miraculously improve enough to win this year either. I saw Scott Neidermayer, Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin (let's not go there) stymie the likes of Kovalev seemingly effortlessly last night, and outside of Markov, the Habs don't really have a comparable answer on defence.
It's not just the defencemen, though. The forwards were lax in getting back and covering their own zone. The PK was ineffectual in clearing the zone and there seemed to be a general amnesia when it came to challenging the rushing Ducks. They gave up their own blueline much too easily. Some of that can be rectified with a better focus on hard work. I mean, if the leafs can beat Detroit with hard work, the Habs surely can beat the likes of Anaheim, whom everyone was beating to start the season.
The irony of last night is that the team, in its worst and most-exposed defensive effort, gave up its fewest shots against of the season with 25. Previously, they were giving up an average of 32 per game...third highest in the league. I don't buy all the talk about the shots being from the outside and relatively harmless. A high shots-allowed total reveals a problem with the team's defensive coverage, no matter where those shots are coming from.
I know every team will lose games, and not every loss will be closely-contested enough to be palatable. But I haven't seen the team have a real, convincing, 60-minute win yet this year, and last night shone a glaring spotlight on their weaknesses. So, if we're recognizing this, you can bet Bob Gainey is too. There are several options he can exercise to address the defence problem. There's assigning the existing players to focus on D more, reducing the freedom the defencemen now have to support the offence on the rush. And there's the previously-mentioned idea of bringing in another top-four man. (Although I do understand Gainey's reluctance to give up valuable futures for what would likely be a rental.) Then there's the idea of hiring a proper defence coach.
Doug Jarvis isn't necessarily doing a bad job with the D, but I can't help thinking it would be better all around to have a guy who's actually played the position offering instruction. It's hard not to imagine the insight a guy like Larry Robinson (yeah, I know he's taken, but you know what I mean) could give Mike Komisarek about using his size to control guys like Getzlaf. Or how he might help devise strategies for the defence to use to beat the tight forechecking that seems to bedevil them against big teams. In a year as important as this one, what's the harm in bringing in someone to help the defence? At least we'd know the team is willing to try anything to improve.
One thing's certain: they're going to have to try something. And it's going to have to start on the back end.