Every team gets injuries, unless they're uncannily blessed like the Habs were last year. The very pervasiveness of broken parts among hockey players means injuries are like ice conditions, bad reffing and tough schedules: everyone's got them, so there's no sense complaining about them. That means injuries can't be a viable excuse for losing. So we don't go there...most of the time anyway. When fingers are pointing this season, they're pointing at poor goaltending, bad coaching, a lack of a productive power play and defensive breakdowns. Very rarely have we heard anyone say, hey, this team has really taken a beating with injuries.
But you know what? The Habs have really taken a beating with injuries. Last summer Bob Gainey built a team that, had it ever been healthy, would have seen three legitimately threatening offensive lines balanced by an energetic, hard-hitting fourth line. Unfortunately for us and Gainey, the dream never became a reality. The team started the year with injuries and have never iced a completely healthy lineup since.
When looking at the impact of injuries, you can't just look at man-games lost. While the Canadiens sit around the middle of the NHL pack in that category, you have to look at which players are affected and the timing of their injuries. Many teams have two or three or more players out of commission at once, but rarely are all of the injured players essential cogs in a winning machine. Clubs that do have a lot of important players out at once, like the Islanders and Blues this year, just don't do very well. This year, the Canadiens have had significant long-term injuries to Mike Komisarek, (an injury from which many believe he's still not recovered), Carey Price, (which reflected in his play long after he returned to the ice) and five of the top-nine forwards on the team...three of them at a time for long stretches.
Another unseen impact of injuries is the effect they have on those players' teammates. Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay came out of the gate with great chemistry at the beginning of the season. But when Koivu went down to injury in mid-December, that chemistry was lost. Then, by the time Koivu came back, Tanguay was hurt. Basically, it's been nearly three months since those top-line players got to perform together. Last night against the Stars, we saw the chemistry between them and Andrei Kostitsyn spark to life again. Just bringing together players who work well with each other eliminates so many of the problems the team has been experiencing. I'm hoping the same thing happens when Guillaume Latendresse recovers. He and Max Lapierre were really playing well together before Latendresse went down with a shoulder injury. Now the lineup isn't just missing Latendresse, it's missing Lapierre's best play as well, since he performs better with Latendresse.
Of course, even when a player comes back from a long injury, things don't return to normal right away. It takes a while for a player to physically get his stamina and timing back. And mentally, it may take even longer for him to shake off the fear of re-injury and immserse himself in the game again. Tanguay says he's still not playing up to par. Carey Price stunk up the rink for three weeks after his return from an ankle injury. Koivu is only now finding his game again.
We can't blame injuries for the Habs' underwhelming performance this season, because every team has them. But I contend the Habs' injuries have been longer, and to more important players at the same time than most teams have had to deal with. Especially teams that are still in the playoff hunt. Most squads with vital injuries to several key players fell out of contention a while ago.
So, while I can't use injuries as an excuse for disinterest and brutal defence throughout the roster, I think it's realistic to accept that the Centennial season has been derailed for many reasons and one of them has certainly been the number of players missing from the lineup at any given time. Add to that all the spinoff effects those kinds of losses inflict on a hockey team, and we can safely say slamming the Habs when they're down is adding a little bit of insult to injury. While we claim a team should be able to fight through injuries, the fact is sometimes, it just can't.
On the plus side, though, if injuries have been hurting the Habs, we can now possibly look forward to a noticable improvement in play as players gradually return and get back up to speed. I hope.