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Canadiens' mounting losses a harbinger of tough times ahead

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The Canadiens carried the play by a wide margin against the Sabres, but came up empty for the second time in two nights against the NHL's worst team.

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Sabres aren't a bad team, they're a historically awful team nearly without peer. Travis Yost has been tracking their shot differential against some of the worst teams on record, and it's appalling.

Overall, the Sabres have conceded 62.3% of shot attempts to their opponents at even strength this season, and 62.7% unblocked shot attempts. Over their two games against the Sabres on back-to-back nights, the Canadiens controlled 62.9% of shot attempts at even strength, and 62.6% of unblocked shot attempts.

The Canadiens have controlled just 49.6% and 49.5% of each possession metric respectively so far this season, so there's a temptation to think that they played well and deserved a better fate against Buffalo, but they essentially played Buffalo to the same rate of possession as their average opponent this season. That's not exactly impressive.

It should have been enough to secure two wins in two games, but Jhonas Enroth saw to it that the Canadiens would get no easy goals, and the Canadiens' defense was porous enough to allow a team barren of offensive skill to score just enough to grab two wins in two days.

Alexei Emelin in particular has been atrocious of late, victimized on goals in three straight games that were clearly on him. Bryan Allen hasn't been any better, and after he and Mike Weaver were caught for a breakaway goal against by Chris Stewart, Allen was benched for the remainder of the game. That Allen was benched as a veteran was fairly surprising considering Therrien's usual strategies, but even more surprising was that Allen was on pace for over 18 minutes of ice time before he was sat down.

And therein lies the problem with Therrien's personnel deployment. Allen can't get the puck out of his own zone. Emelin can't get the puck out of his own zone. Weaver can't get the puck out of his own zone. Sergei Gonchar can get the puck out of his own zone, but he's old and his legs are slow, meaning he gets beat to the puck a lot.

Photo credit: hockeystats.ca

Essentially, when P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov aren't on the ice, the Habs can't move the puck the way they want to, and that's even ignoring the fact that the way the team tries to move up the ice is inherently flawed.

It's easy to look at Chris Stewarts goal and wonder whether a Nathan Beaulieu and Tom Gilbert pairing would have caught up to him and stopped the play, but it's entirely legitimate when it's so obvious that those two are superior players to begin with. The Canadiens are currently in a situation where their defensemen boast the highest average age since the 2008-09 Red Wings, which included a trio of Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, and Brian Rafalski, and just a single above league average skater.

Markov and Gonchar are savvy, but no longer fleet of foot. Allen, Emelin, and Weaver are all below NHL average in mobility too, and that just leaves Subban. Try as he might, Subban can't do everything, especially when he's being held back by a coaching staff that very clearly still doesn't trust him to be himself.

At a certain point, fans, media, and the Montreal Canadiens organization all need to realize that it's the record that is the outlier, not everything else.

Canadiens fans and media have been pointing to the team's record as the ultimate silencer to criticism so far this year, but in the span of a weekend the Canadiens have fallen from first in the NHL to sixth, fourth in their own conference. Their goal differential sits at -1 when you remove shootout goals, which ranks 18th in the league, right above the Senators. They rank 21st in even strength shot attempt differential, 19th in unblocked shot attempt differential, 20th in actual shot differential, 19th in shot attempts per minute on the powerplay, and 19th in shot attempts against on the penalty kill.

At a certain point, fans, media, and the Montreal Canadiens organization all need to realize that it's the record that is the outlier, not everything else. The Canadiens have performed in all situations like a team that doesn't deserve to make the playoffs, let alone win anything when they get there.

No one would expect that the Habs would continue to win at a clip of 16-5-1 the rest of the season, and that success can't be ignored. If the Canadiens had played better, they way they should play, it would be unbelievably unlikely that they would replicate that level of success again. However playing the way they have, it would be even less likely. Playing the way they have, they're not going to win when it matters.

It's often said that the Habs' fanbase has impossibly high standards. For their players, this is definitely true. All it takes is a couple bad plays and even Carey Price or P.K. Subban are fair game. But as far as the team goes, scraping out wins they don't deserve seems to be good enough.

I look at the Canadiens' roster and see no need for them to play the way they do. I see the potential for an annual contender, but they're being held back, and will continue to be held back, if they don't learn to take things to the next level.