The Montreal Canadiens entered Saturday night's game with a perfect 8-0-0 record, and had achieved that mark by scoring seven goals in a game they were otherwise outplayed. They had the chance to extend the streak that was already the longest in the storied history of the franchise and, indeed, tied for the longest regulation win streak in NHL history.
The game started off the way the majority of Friday's game in Buffalo played out, with the opposing team controlling the majority of the play. The Habs got help from Carey Price's right post on two occasions early in the first, as well as a crease-clearing play from Alexei Emelin, to keep the Toronto Maple Leafs off the board.
P.K. Subban was flying around the ice at the start of the game, launching several shots toward the net when the Habs were able to gain the Leaf's blue line. He was blasting the puck at every opportunity, including once form 20 feet when the puck bounced to him in the slot.
The brute force technique paid off on a mid-period power play, as he accepted a lateral pass from Max Pacioretty and blasted it through Jonathan Bernier. It was Subban's first goal, and first power play point, of the season for the Norris candidate who had a career-high 15 tallies last season.
Subban goal pic.twitter.com/jUbNrSnS54— Stephanie (@myregularface) October 24, 2015
The lead was expanded less than two minutes into the second. Lars Eller took the puck away at Montreal's blue line and moved it ahead to Alex Galchenyuk. Galchenyuk carried the puck up to the boards and into the offensive zone, cut across in front a Leafs defender to the slot, and launched a low shot against the flow of play. Eller followed up on the rebound that was created and netted his third goal of the season.
The Leafs got on the board less than a minute later as neither Andrei Markov nor Brian Flynn noticed Leo Komarov moving to the front of the net, and the Estonian was able to score a rebound from a prime position at the mouth of the crease.
The celebration was short-lived as David Desharnais' attempted cross-ice pass a few minutes later was deflected off the stick, then the skate, of Michael Grabner and into the net to put the visitors back down by one.
The Canadiens, already struggling to keep up with the desperate pace of one-win Leafs, flat-lined after the 3-1 goal and lost the majority of the one-on-one puck battles for the remainder of the period.
One such prolonged stretch of lost retrievals saw a sequence of failed chip-outs broken by Alexander Semin, who instead attempted a pass to the middle of the ice for a controlled zone exit instead. The idea was commendable, but the execution was terrible as the puck ended up directly on the stick of a Leafs defender to start the process once again. Later in the shift, Eller had a the puck on his stick at the blue line, but once again the Leafs gained control and sent the puck back down low. With the five-man defensive unit out of gas, Dion Phaneuf fired a shot that bounced off the boards and out in front of the goal line on the other side. Price was slow reacting to the unintentional bank shot, and James van Riemsdyk scored in a virtually empty net.
A penalty for a faceoff infraction on the following centre-ice puck drop temporarily halted the Leafs' pressure, but they picked up the offensive-zone onslaught upon the return to even strength.
Eller was assessed a high-sticking minor for a high cross-check behind the Leafs net, and the Leafs got a chance to tie things up. It was Montreal who took advantage of the situation, however, with Pacioretty carrying the puck on a short-handed two-on-one with Tomas Plekanec, and shooting it through the five-hole of Bernier to relieve the pressure that Toronto had spent the period building up.
Frustrated with the way the game was heading, Phaneuf took a selfish penalty versus Dale Weise, sending the Habs to power play of their own. On that man advantage, Subban wound up for yet another slapshot, but rather than test Bernier, he fired it onto the waiting stick of Gallagher to deflect in for his fourth goal.
WATCH: Gallagher redirects one past Bernier and makes it 5-2 @CanadiensMTL pic.twitter.com/zswtVHLbXy— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 25, 2015
Subban and Markov both got their ninth assist of the season on the power play goal, and now sit in a four-way tie for the league lead in that category.
The Canadiens came out with a much more determined showing to begin the third, but the effort was short-lived and they soon found themselves under siege once again in their own zone. Morgan Rielly made the Habs pay for their poor performance with a goal seven minutes in, getting Price off his angle on a rush down right wing and sending a glancing shot off the Vezina-winner's blocker and into the net.
That was as tight as the Leafs were able to make it, and Montreal's timely goal-scoring kept their season-opening winning streak going, now sitting at an NHL record nine regulation victories.
The Canadiens were close to some other records after the game as well. Price's 49-save performance was the second-highest regulation total of his career, and the highest home total in the last 25 years of Canadiens history.
That is a concerning stat for a team that was recently given the best odds of winning the Stanley Cup this season; especially when looking at the two-game shot totals between the Buffalo game and last night's home game. Being outshot 88-52 versus the Atlantic Division's two lowliest teams is not what one would expect to see from a Stanley Cup contender, but it's also true that the Sabres and Leafs needed the points from those games more than the Habs did.
The main reason for the poor shot differentials is recent games seems to be the return of the old habit to throw the puck off the boards when under any kind of pressure in the defensive zone. It began to creep back into their game in the first period versus the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night before they were able to reign it in during the second. They went chance-for-chance with the Sabres on Friday, with that game being tied past the midway point, and the Habs scoring five unanswered goals counter to the run of play.
In fact, the old dump-out strategy had become so prevalent in Saturday night's contest that the Canadiens got a Bronx cheer when, on their fifth attempt, they finally managed to get the puck over the red line in a legal fashion after four consecutive icings.
The #Habs' 80.3% pass success rate in the defensive zone is first in the entire NHL, so why do they dump it out so often? Makes no sense— Sportlogiq (@Sportlogiq) October 25, 2015
That's the question that needs to be asked right now. Was this simply a case of back-to-back games against inferior opponents not taken seriously by a team that knows it's the better club (and, granted, they did achieve all four points from this weekend's set, handily outscoring their opponents 12-5). Or is this a sign that the team's tactics were not sorted out at the start of the year, and need to be addressed and corrected?
I think it's fairly obvious that the team was playing a very different style in the opening games of the season, being one of the top possession teams if you were following along with the shot-attempt differentials. Even if you weren't, you saw five-man units breaking out of their own zone and into the offensive end; something that the Habs have struggled with in recent games. The players are not happy with their showing in last night's game, and even Michel Therrien, who has proven to be more of a results-based decision-maker (see the lack of lineup changes on this nine-game win streak) than one who evaluates on performance, acknowledged that the effort was less than ideal.
After what was essentially a home stand (with an excursion to Buffalo mixed in), the Habs now go back on the road, this time to Western Canada to face the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night, followed by visits to Edmonton and Calgary. That trip was the beginning of a stretch that saw Montreal get just two wins (via shootout) over a six-game stint after a hot start to the season. Addressing the defensive-zone strategy may be required to remove the bad habits that have surfaced, and ensure such a streak of futility doesn't undo the historic work that the 2015-16 Canadiens have done to this point.