Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Startling stats and the need for a closer

Well, we've all seen it many times this season: the Habs are up by a goal. Or two. Or even three. Then the opposition starts to press, the Canadiens wilt and it's farewell to the lead. Often, the turnaround is because of what I like to call the "backbreaker" goal. In my definition, that's a goal against scored with three minutes or less to go in the period.

It seems to happen so often, I felt compelled to take a closer look and determine whether the phenomenon is one of perception or fact. Unfortunately, the numbers say it's a fact.

The Canadiens have played 57 games this season so far. In that span, they've allowed 158 goals. And of that number, 33 have come in the last three minutes of a period...backbreaker goals. That's a full 20.9 percent of all the goals the team has allowed. And it gets worse. Of the thirty-three backbreakers, seven have come in the first period, ten in the second and a whopping sixteen in the third. In sixteen of 57 games played, or 28 percent, the Canadiens have allowed a goal in the last three minutes of regulation time. Those backbreakers are the kinds of goals that change the momentum of games, or kill the hope of a comeback. The ones in the third, especially, often seal a victory for the opponent.

What this informal study tells me is the team is seriously missing a shut-down line, or at the very least, a shut-down forward who's reliable on big faceoffs late in the period. Someone like New Jersey's John Madden or Sammy Pahlsson from Anaheim. Someone who can win the draw, clear the puck, block an important shot, check the other team's top guy and keep his head under pressure.

Maybe that player is Kyle Chipchura in the next couple of seasons. That's why he was drafted, but we don't know if he'll reach his potential in that role. If he does, it probably won't be this season. In the meantime, Bob Gainey has to seriously consider a temporary player to perform those duties successfully before the Canadiens can hope to compete in the post-season. Or even get into the post-season if things keep going the way they have been so far this month. Gainey must admit at this point that Brian Smolinski isn't that player. Neither is Steve Begin or Tom Kostopoulos.

Just imagine: if only five of those sixteen third-period backbreakers had been prevented, the Habs could very well be comfortably in first place today. It's time to take this issue very seriously, and if Gainey's words at his mid-season team update about focussing on faceoffs and goal prevention can be taken at face value, I think he's on the same page. I hope so, and I hope to see someone who can fill that role added to the roster before the backbreakers cost the season.

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