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Are The Canadiens Preparing To Fool Us Again?

Now that the Canadiens have successfully wound down their annual Christmas road swing with a 3-1-2 record, good for 8 of a possible 12 points, their focus must now turn to finding ways to translate that road killer instinct into some home ice wins.

It all begins with how the team perceives how it is faring so far.

Montreal now has a record of 19-13-7, 6-7-4 at home, and 13-6-3 on the road.

Depending on the tint of your rose coloured glasses, the Habs are either not bad or dismal on Bell Centre ice this season.

Could it be that they have simply been slightly above average for 38 games?

I have the fear that the Canadiens, and fans, are preparing to fool themselves again.

The opinion on the Habs overall standing might also be affected by how one choses to view overtime and shootout losses columns. To me - a loss is loss no matter how you paint it. When the opposition scores double the points the Canadiens do in a game - as did the Rangers last Sunday - there is only one winner.

The condolences of awarding the losers of games is just about the most twisted fact of the optical illusion that is the New NHL - a term I'm sick to death of, and use only in scarcasm.

Where it gets even more illogical, is when the team's record is taken as a whole and placed in perspective with the remaining 14 teams in the conference. Montreal's 19 wins and 20 "anyway you take them" losses are still good enough for third place among the 15 teams.

Teams with clean above .500 winning percentages actually sit and few places back of the Habs! There is a danger in this deception.

The scenario for a repeat of last season's second half collapse is not far from anyone's mind, especially given that the captain Saku Koivu came down with the flu and missed the Rangers game.

Clearly, where the Canadiens can avoid disaster again, is by cleaning up their act on home ice.

Given that the team is so young, the role of the veterans is even more important in teaching the kids that winning at home is a game of patience and poise. The will to put on a show at home is often so alluring that it deceives the team goal of winning games outright. With media so large and prominant in Montreal, players are often misguided in thinking that their offensive output on home ice is what contributes best to keeping the media from scrutinizing their individual games.

Settling for, and believing in that misconception, is where it sometimes goes afoul. It's like believing an overtime loss is a gain.

Road teams all approach game plans similarly, hoping the home team will beat itself by opening up with ill advised exhuberance at the wrong moment. The desire to entertain the home crowd is one that the Canadiens need to cast out or reel in from shift to shift, depending on the game's momentum. The fisherman's analogy continued, might be that you can't catch a fish where it refuses to nibble.

In the success of the recent road trip, many things have gone right for the Canadiens. Seeing it as having taken 8 of 12 possible points is one way to look rosy at it. Another more honest take is to admit that the Habs won 3 of six games, beating the opponants they should have in Washington, Tampa, and Florida, while losing one they let get away in Atlanta. The losses to Dallas and New York could have been predicted.

That, in coach Carbonneau's words, the New York game was "one of their best efforts of the season", lets players off the hook for late mistakes which cost them the game.

I wasn't too pleased to hear such a thing, as it is not the bench boss' spin, nor the media's, that will assist the Habs in making the playoffs. Only the player's dedication to a complete 60 minute game will get them there, and the coach absolving them from the finer details of losing goes against them learning from the loss, big time.

Perhaps the fact that it might have been worse, based on past showings through southern holiday season roadswings, is what has everyone looking at a half full glass.

The positive slant thrown on wins in Tampa and Florida are where the deception begins. That the Habs rarely ever take two in the state in one thing to see positively - but those are games they should not have lost to begin with.

Cristobal Huet seems to be finding his form again, and has brought his save percentage back amongst the best in the league. Yes, and he looked a total frozen stiff in the Atlanta shootout and could have done better in New York as well. He's only at a fraction of where he needs to be to carry the team.

On the plus side, the Canadiens are doing well at even strength. The team that was a whopping -29 last year, is a comparatively minuscule minus one today. What's better is that it hasn't come at the expense of what is still the league's top powerplay. Where it gets complicating is that the penalty kill is still having growing pains. Fortunately it can only get better.

More good news has been the consistent good play of the Tomas Plekanec - Alex Kovalev - Andrei Kostitsyn line. More often than not, the team goes as they go, and the trio are gelling better than ever. The elder Belarusian seems inspired by his brother's arrival with the team, being better than a point per game since his promotion. Kovalev has been inspiring himself, with a serious focus on his role as a leader coming into play. Plekanec, as Pat Hickey notes, is playing like a number one center, to the contradiction of those who have stated he hasn't been worthy of a second line pivot status. That Plekanec usually picks it up in the second half can only be a good thing.

Some of the kids are gaining assuredness as well. Guillaume Latendresse's slow start is well behind him, and he is on pace for close to 25 goals. Max Lapierre has shown he belongs in Montreal with his sandpaper work ethic renewed and ready to irritate and foil once again. The addition of Sergei Kostitsyn has given Carbonneau more offensive options, to the point of spreading the attack to three lines. That the Habs can employ Higgins and Ryder on the third paring, win and have little complaints is a bonus and allows for the most positive of horizons.
The troubles that Canadiens have had, are having currently, or will run into down the road, all tie into how they choose to see there respective woes.

What I find the most assuring, is that their fixes are within their grasp, depending on how well they admit to the existence of the problems. Sweeping the problem under the rug while settling on cliched reasoning will only add smoke to the mirror.

The Canadiens have a lot going for them, but being in fourth place in January means nothing whatsoever. The lesson should have been learned last season and the wake up call should come 25 games sooner this time around.

It is not by the attitude of settling for earning a single point in their "best game of the year" that the team will rally around itself and own up to its shortcomings.