If the Canadiens miss the playoffs this year, it's going to be because they can't lose well enough. The Habs have 29 losses in regulation time, six in OT or shootout. Every one of the teams around them in the sardine can that is the middle of the Eastern Conference standings...the Rangers, Thrashers, Lightning and Bruins...has lost a similar number of games overall. The difference in points though, comes in the extra period and shootout. The Bruins have eleven loser points, so do the Lightning. The Thrashers have ten. Those points right now are making the difference in the standings.
The Canadiens have well-documented scoring issues. That's not surprising, considering the long-term injuries to every member of the top-six forward group except Plekanec, and to the team's best offensive defenceman. As much as I despair of his defence, Bergeron was helping on the power play too for a while. The scoring problems, coupled with the generally strong goaltending, mean the Habs end up in a LOT of one-goal games. Thirty-five of them, in fact. That's second-most in the league, behind Atlanta's thirty-six. The problem is, though, the Thrashers manage to lose more of their games in OT than the Canadiens do. They're still losing, of course, but they're losing effectively and...no pun intended...that's the point. The Habs have thirteen one-goal losses in regulation, which is the most in the league.
It could be so much worse. Fortunately for the Canadiens, they're tied with the Blackhawks for the most wins in OT and shootout, with thirteen. That proves if they can get to extra time, they do well. Getting there is the problem, though.
They haven't done that enough this year. They've blown ties late in games and they've failed to score the desperation, last-minute goals that get a team to overtime. As a result, the teams that do manage to use the loser-point system better are tied with, or ahead of them. If even five of the one-goal regulation losses had ended up in OT, even if they still ended up as losses, the Canadiens would be fifth in the conference, ahead of Philly and challenging the Sabres.
I blame it at least partially on Jacques Martin. It can't be coincidence that whenever the Habs have a one-goal lead in the third period, the players collapse and play a defensive shell rather than skate hard and press the forecheck. That's not the team panicking; it's the players doing what they're told. Martin can't be blamed for the players' failure to tie up games when they're behind late, but blowing leads has to rest somewhat with him.
I hate the loser-point system. In a league that requires a winner and loser in every game, there's no need of points at all. Wins and losses should be sufficient to establish standings. With the elimination of the tie, continuing with points just makes the standings more convoluted. Loser points inflate teams' stats and allow for a false parity that doesn't necessarily accurately reflect the quality of the teamas involved. But the system is the system and it's up to the Canadiens to take advantage of it.
It may be too late for that this year, but whether you call it killer instinct or survival mode, they have to get better at using the loser point. We're looking at pretty much the same team next year and we can expect another low-scoring squad. That means more one-goal games, and similar results next year unless the Habs get better at losing.