The Montreal Canadiens rank second in the NHL in a very telling category. They trail only the Pittsburgh Penguins in the number of candyass, lazy minor penalties they've taken this year, with a grand total of 285 as of last night. Included in that number are a league-leading 12 bench minors; the kinds of penalties that reveal a team's disorganization and indiscipline. In comparison, top contenders Detroit and Philly have just two bench minors apiece.
Some will argue the Canadiens take so many minors because they're small and use their sticks to compensate, or because they don't forecheck hard enough to force the other team into taking penalties. While there may be an element of truth to that against some teams, in reality, a lot of the penalties they take are out of pure carelessness or stupidity. Last night, for example, the Habs took another two too-many-men penalties, as well as a delay-of-game and two minors while on the power play.
The problem with taking stupid minors is the way they influence every other aspect of a team's game plan. Take last night. The first too-many-men call came less than two minutes into the first period. At that point, any inclination Jacques Martin might have had to roll four lines had to be put on hold as the PKers took over for two minutes. They killed that off and started to build some momentum when Plekanec took a questionable interference call and put his team back on the defensive. Again, they killed it off and when they got rolling afterwards, they were rewarded by Max Pacioretty's goal.
Unfortunately, every time they'd build momentum with a good push or a PP, they'd scuttle their own chances with a dumb penalty. The time in the box meant P.K.Subban had to spend more than four minutes on the PK and only 0:25 on the PP. It meant less ice time for Andrei Kostitsyn, Benoit Pouliot, James Wizniewski and Pacioretty, who didn't kill penalties. Of course, they're also players with a better chance to score than PKers like Travis Moen and Hal Gill, so the penalties cut down on the Canadiens' offensive opportunities as well. And it meant Atlanta always had a chance to take over the game with a timely PP goal, or a goal scored off the momentum they built every time the Habs shot themselves in the proverbial foot.
It's a good thing the goaltender is often a team's best penalty killer. Carey Price was sharp as a north wind all night, and saved us from a bunch of dressing room cliches about how lack of discipline cost them the game. The kid is the Canadiens' MVP this year, by a mile, and he deserves every bit of applause and every grudging nod of approval he gets. If not for his solid play...make no mistake about it...we would be listening to those post-loss excuses today. In the wake of a quiet deadline day, the bellyaching of the Gauthier haters would have been pretty much unbearable if that had happened.
Going forward, though, the Habs have got to be more disciplined. They escaped with a win last night, despite their flirting with penalty-induced disaster. In the playoffs, assuming the team qualifies, games are decided on special teams. If the Canadiens are in the habit of handing out free opportunities in the post-season, they won't last long. They're not the kind of team that can score at will, so a PP goal scored off a dumb penalty is often enough to bury them. They need to develop better habits now, so they're playing much smarter when it really matters.
Staying out of the box means all four lines can get some flow going, the ice time is better distributed among the defencemen and the team has a chance to build momentum. With the challenges the Canadiens are facing on the injury front, they have to give themselves every advantage they can get. There's nothing they can do about how small they are, or their speed on the blueline, but they can control their own behaviour. They must.