Remember earlier this season, when the slide began?
The Canadiens started 2013-14 by replicating their excellent performance of the season prior, posting possession numbers worthy of a playoff team. Then, it all began to fade.
Through November and December, the Canadiens' possession numbers began to decline, heading away from playoff contender, to those of a playoff bubble team, to those of a draft lottery club.
Despite that slide, a funny thing happened. Carey Price stole game after game. The Habs would manage only a goal or two, and would win anyway. Most of the time, the scoring would come from the team's stars - Subban, Pacioretty, Plekanec, et al. When those players couldn't put the puck in the net, the fourth line would step up. Generally speaking, through luck, or opportunism, or some other factor, the Canadiens found a way to get it done.
That luck has dried up. Since their improbable eight game winning streak was ended by the Los Angeles Kings, the Habs barely managed to keep themselves at .500. Considering their recent play, even that mediocre mark is probably better than they deserve.
The Canadiens were supposed to be among the Eastern Conference's elite. Now, whatever disease has befallen them seems to be affecting the Pittsburgh Penguins, as well.
Over their last ten games, the Penguins fenwick close percentage is sitting at 45.1%, a number not much better than the Habs pitiful 42.5%. Despite failing to outshoot their opponents seven times in that stretch, the Penguins have won seven times, maintaining their healthy cushion at the top of the Metropolitan division.
What's kept the Penguins afloat? Part of their success has been timely goaltending, and starter Marc Andre Fleury has mixed some excellent starts in with some stinkers. Furthermore, when Fleury's been bad, his teammates have bailed him out. Discounting a one goal against effort against the woeful Flames, Fleury has given up a total of 12 goals since January 3. Unfazed, his teammates have come up with fifteen total goals in those games, and the Pens have kept rolling.
Does this mean that the Penguins are due for a collapse? Not necessarily. The Penguins' star talent is unsurpassed league wide, and no Eastern team can boast better scoring at even strength. While his numbers are only at the league average, Fleury is having one of the best statistical seasons of his career, giving the Penguins a chance to win on a regular basis. Perhaps most significantly, the Penguins have suffered some key injuries lately, leaving them without Sidney Crosby wingman Pascal Dupuis, occasional top six forward Beau Bennett, and two of their top defenders, Kris Letang and Paul Martin. While their top forwards have gone unscathed for once, the Penguins have lost more man games than any other NHL team this season.
So, how do the Canadiens beat the Penguins? Probably a lot like they did last time. At the end of November, a mustached Max Pacioretty sniped a pair of goals past Marc Andre Fleury, including the event game winner. Tomas Plekanec would put a pair himself, enough to outweigh James Neal's brace. P.K. Subban smothered Crosby and his line, and Carey Price held the fort against a third period rush. Subban had the benefit of Andrei Markov's presence at his side that night, but given his exemplary performance against Jonathan Toews and the first line of the Chicago Blackhawks recently, it seems fair to guess that P.K. can likely manage while paired with Josh Gorges.
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