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Canadiens win ugly in Denver, a game that was a microcosm of the season

Habs games follow a very obvious formula this season, one that isn't exactly positive, but ends in a lot of wins.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The game the Montreal Canadiens have played this year are so predictable, it's almost as if they're following a script. Not everything happens the same way, but you can be almost 100% sure that they will be outplayed in the first period by a wide margin, and slowly rally as the game goes on.

After the first period against the Colorado Avalanche, wherein the Habs were thoroughly outplayed, I asked Mathieu Roy if he could run the numbers for me post game and look at Montreal's 5-vs-5 possession numbers in each period, to see if it was just our eyes fooling us a bit.

As it turns out, our eyes weren't lying. In first periods this season, the Canadiens have just a 47.1% share of shot attempts at even strength (Corsi), and 46.3% of unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick). And as expected, the Habs have been much, much better in the other two periods.

possession by period

Score effects are certainly at play in the final 40 minutes of hockey games, especially when you consider that the Canadiens have given up the first goal of the game 17 times in 26 games, but overall, if you look at those numbers, and the team's record, it's not bad. They could certainly be better than that, but it's nothing to whine about.

The first periods though, are striking. The difference in Fenwick between the first period and the rest of games is over six percentage points, yet the Habs are so bad in first periods that it takes two periods of good play just to make up for them in terms of differential. It's ghastly.

Why is this happening over and over?

It's almost impossible to know what's going on exactly, but as it stands it looks like the Canadiens are heading into games completely unprepared. They don't make huge tactical adjustments between periods, and the ice time isn't divided up radically different either.

What it looks like and what it is could very easily be two different things, but to my eyes it looks like someone isn't doing their job, and the biggest difference seems to be the Canadiens as players adjust to what their opponents are doing naturally, by playing against them, instead of having strategies designed to break down their opponent's systems. Essentially, they're getting by on the talent of the roster, not due to any technical brilliance.

The Habs' roster is very good, even while two of their best defensemen reside in Hamilton, but in today's NHL you can only skate by relying on elite goaltending and skill for so long, and it seems like the Canadiens are beginning to run a little short on puck luck, losing two straight to the lowly Sabres after being choke-slammed by the Rangers.

Back to the game

Predictably, the Canadiens took it to the Avs from the second period on in terms of possession, but overall the win was anything but impressive.

Photo credit: Patrick Roy reacts to his team's defensive coverage. Gif by @myregularface

The Canadiens should beat the Avalanche. They should beat them fairly convincingly, like they should have done to the Sabres over the weekend, but it was a puck squirting loose at the perfect time to Max Pacioretty that was the difference in a game that once again showcased how brutal the Canadiens can be defensively.

Tyson Barrie's goal, scored off of Brandon Prust on what was a Colorado four-on-one break against just Tom Gilbert, was the kind of thing a peewee coach would be upset about. A bad pinch by Mike Weaver and miscommunication with Lars Eller left Montreal much too vulnerable.

Weaver was at fault for the first Avalanche goal as well, failing to anticipate an easy Carey Price pass along the boards, missing the puck, then losing a puck battle to Daniel Briere, who had a clear path to the net. Price probably could have played the show better, but as a rule you don't let guys go to the net unimpeded.

Therrien recognized Weaver's struggles and benched him to the tune of just 12 shifts and 7:49 of ice time all game, which in turn held Gilbert to just 11:06 in 18 shifts, and forced Subban to play 28:09. Luckily though, Subban was amazing. While Subban was on the ice at even strength, the Canadiens controlled 67% of shot attempts. While he was off, that number fell to just 40.7%.

The defense as currently constructed, the team as currently coached, will make the playoffs, but that's about it. They need to get better, a lot better.

Some other notes

  • Lars Eller has been unbelievably excellent this season, but has turned it up yet another notch. He had six shots against Colorado, 13 shots in his last two games. David Desharnais has 13 shots in his previous 17 games. Desharnais plays 2:27 more per game than Eller, 2:10 of that is on the powerplay. Eller also plays 1:10 per game shorthanded.
  • Half of Pacioretty's 12 goals have been scored with Dale Weise on the ice. Only 16 of Pacioretty's 96 shots this season have taken place with Dale Weise on the ice. That means Pacioretty's shooting percentage with Weise on is 37.5%. With Weise off, it's 7.5%. It's not chemistry, it's an odd aberration. It's obviously tempting to roll with what's working, and it has paid off for the coaching staff short term, but as soon as it stops paying off, Weise shouldn't see a second on the top line.
  • The biggest problem in both Eller and Subban's game early in the season was a lack discipline. The two combined for 17 minor penalties through their first 25 combined games. Since then? Four minor penalties between them in a combined 27 games. That's huge.
  • The only natural center on the Habs that isn't outproducing Desharnais at even strength this year is Manny Malhotra. This includes Brandon Prust. This is while Desharnais has the second highest PDO on the roster, and the highest on-ice shooting percentage of all centers. Pacioretty is producing more goals per minute than Desharnais is points. He's struggling.