This morning, I was going to write a scathing reaction to last night's destruction of the Habs in the most humiliating of ways by the wretched, ungodly leafs. I even got started, when my son asked me how they did last night. I answered, "They sucked in every way. They lost 6-0 to the stupid leafs." He just looked at me and said, "Yeah, but you can't write anything too mean about them because they're still your team, right?" I sighed, agreed and erased the lines I'd written in frustration.
Yes, last night was dreadful. It was disappointing, embarrassing, desperate and, in some cases, horrible. That it came on the heels of losses to two other division rivals magnified it. Watching a bully like Colton Orr deliberately try to hurt Tomas Plekanec with a knee and pissant Mikhail Grabovsky actually bite Max Pacioretty was salt in a freshly inflicted wound. Yet, for all the disgust we feel today, and for all the calls to strip the "C" from Brian Gionta or overpay to get George Parros or bury David Desharnais in Hamilton, the Canadiens are not as bad as they looked.
Right now there are some problems, chief among them the sudden inability to score. The leafs are not a defensive juggernaut, but they kept the Canadiens to the outside, making sure Reimer could see every shot. On the other hand, the villains in white came out hard from the first puck drop. They were using their speed to force the Habs D back, and an aggressive forecheck giving them access to Price's crease all night long. As Price himself said last night, "That's how you'll score against most goalies in this league."
We know the Canadiens are capable of better, because we saw them do the same kinds of things the leafs were doing last night, earlier in the season. Instead, on a "no excuses" team, Josh Gorges said through gritted teeth that the team wasn't ready to start the game (sounds like an excuse, there Josh), and once they got behind, they couldn't catch up.
There are two major factors contributing to the scoring problem. One is the dreadful play of Erik Cole. Cole really helped his line with Desharnais and Pacioretty succeed last year by using his strength and speed to drive down the wing. We saw that line score a lot of goals because Cole carried the puck, forcing the opposing defence to key on him, which allowed Desharnais and Pacioretty to get open and go to the net. Cole's not doing that this year. That means Desharnais is having to do the grunt work, at which he's not nearly as successful. As a result, he's battling to break into the offensive zone, or dumping and chasing instead of making nice little plays for Pacioretty or Cole to cash. If Cole's not committed to playing in the NHL anymore, as he hinted he wasn't before the season began, he needs to make that decision now, instead of continuing to play without passion. In the meantime, it's time to break up that line. Perhaps Rene Bourque, who's this year's Cole, could move to that line for a game or two, just to get Pacioretty and Desharnais going. Or maybe young Brendan Gallagher could give the pair some jump. In any case, something has to happen because that line is failing and Plekanec can't do all the scoring as well as all the penalty killing this team needs.
The other factor in the scoring problem is the defence. Gorges is a leader and a heart-and-soul guy, but he can't score. Francis Bouillon is a similar kind of player. Alexei Emelin is playing on his off side, and he's making a lot of mistakes, while he, also, doesn't score. P.K. Subban is capable of putting up some points, but he's still learning defensively, so doesn't venture too far from home most of the time.Neither does Raphael Diaz, although he and Subban are capable of making some nice outlet passes to get the offence moving up ice. That leaves Andrei Markov, the General. He's playing an average of 24:39 per game, two minutes more per night than his career average, he's partnered with Emelin, who's making all those errors, he's 34 years of age and has a surgically rebuilt knee. So, while the PP gives Markov a marvelous opportunity to show off his brilliant on-ice vision and offensive creativity, playing even-strength workhorse minutes sets him up for failure. There's no coincidence that all of his ten points this year have come on the PP, or that he's a -2 at even strength.
The Canadiens power play never worked well with Markov and Subban out there together. Perhaps it's because Markov likes to have the shooter to his right for the one-timer, but he has to move to the middle to set up the right-handed Subban. Whatever the reason, Markov and Diaz clicked much better than Markov and Subban. Without an active power play, the defence plays a limited role in the Canadiens offence, and the lack of that back-end support is hurting them.
Michel Therrien is still figuring out this team and which players work together best. He's still learning which buttons to push to get the best out of each guy. One thing is certain, though, and that's that he doesn't have a lot of time to do the job. He's got to make some adjustments and make them quickly, without it seeming to be caused by panic. No player should be sitting there in the room after a game saying they just weren't ready to start. The Canadiens are not the kind of team that can sit back and wait for the perfect opportunity. They have to do what brought them success at the beginning of the year, and what worked for the leafs last night: skate like their nuts are on fire for 60 minutes and force the other team back on its heels by the sheer energy of their attack.
There is one small thing to take heart from in the midst of our hand wringing and rending of clothes today: These players are supporting each other. Nobody is going to get drilled and left to stand alone. Plekanec mentioned on RDS's L'Antichambre last night that a big reason why he was able to avoid getting his knee destroyed by Orr was because his teammates shouted a warning from the bench. He said how big a help that was, and that it showed how the players are looking out for each other. That's the kind of mentality that will help the team weather the bad games and the losing streaks that are bound to come.
Most of us never thought the Habs would win the Cup this year. All we wanted was a fun team to watch, with some hope for the future. Last night was neither entertaining nor optimistic. (Pity the poor buggers in the reds at the Bell Centre who acutally paid to watch that crap.) Still, nobody expects a perfect year, especially from a rebuilding team. We all know there will be potholes in the road, and last night's could have eaten a Buick. The good thing is, for now, there's another game coming right up, to take the sting out of the last one. And we will watch, because, yes, they are still our team.