The Montreal Canadiens are becoming predictable.
Despite scoring only two goals over two games late last week, a pair of well-timed shutouts made sure the Habs came away with four points. Heading into Sunday's game with the Arizona Coyotes, the Habs again looked to have goaltending advantage, with solid back-up Dustin Tokarski facing off against first-time starter Louis Domingue.
Tokarski played well enough, yielding only a single even strength goal against on a wrist shot from the side boards. As has been the case for some time now, however, play that is simply above average has not been enough to buoy an increasingly heavy Canadiens team.
The Habs have been possession-positive in only one of their last eight games, forcing Carey Price to reprise his role as Atlas time and time again to keep his team competitive.
Tonight, it's highly improbable that the Habs will not take more shot attempts than their opponent. 50-50 isn't the goal this evening, though. Anything less than a convincing over their historically poor adversary must be considered a further disappointment.
How to Watch
Tale of the Tape
|48.2||Score-Adjusted Fenwick %||36.6|
|1.23||5v5 Goal Ratio||0.57|
Know Your Enemy
On the bright side, the Buffalo Sabres that the Canadiens will battle tonight are very much the same terrible squad that the Habs have already played three times this year. With a roster nearly devoid of scoring talent, and a shot differential worse than any team for which data is available, the Sabres have made life horrible for beleaguered goaltender Jhonas Enroth.
On the other hand, the Habs have only sixty minutes to shed the embarrassing title of the only Eastern team to play Buffalo more than once and carry a losing record.
The major difference in this Buffalo squad since they last saw Montreal is the addition of top pairing defenceman, and former Hab, Josh Gorges. Gorges was begrudgingly dealt to the Sabres this summer, and was sitting out injured at his first opportunity to play his former squad.
While in Montreal, perception of Gorges varied from defensive stalwart and future captain to hard-nosed, but one-dimensional, defensive defenceman. The reality was likely closer to the latter, but regardless, Gorges' never-ending effort was always well received in Montreal, and the team enjoyed playoff success during his tenure.
In Western New York, that effort has not been enough to bear that same success. Paired most frequently with Tyler Myers, the challenge of defending the league's best has been too much. No longer insulated by the likes of P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, and Price, Gorges 2014-15 squad is taking nine fewer unblocked shot attempts per sixty minutes of play, and allowing five more, than his worst Montreal teams. Marc Bergevin's roster may have some glaring flaws, but walking away from Gorges last summer was a wise and timely move, even if it was a little heart-wrenching.
Last Time Out
When the Canadiens last met the Buffalo Sabres, they were on the heels of the same kind of unlikely loss that they are regretting today. In that case, however, the loss came to the same Sabres team.
That late November home and home set was kicked off with a dismal 2-1 loss. Bryan Allen had been inserted in place of Tom Gilbert and alongside Mike Weaver, and made to face-off against what may have been Buffalo's best line. Brian Gionta, Torrey Mitchell, and Brian Flynn ran roughshod, leaving Weaver and Allen in the red on possession, and Weaver on the ice for a Buffalo goal. Buffalo took 45.6% of shot attempts that night, marking their 7th best possession effort of the year.
The next night went better, but still, Montreal went without two points. Chris Stewart blitzed the Allen and Weaver pair for a breakaway goal. With the game tied at three, P.K. Subban put on a puck-handling clinic, but couldn't crack Enroth. Eventually, Flynn struck for the shootout winner, beating Dustin Tokarski and limiting Montreal to an unthinkable one out of four possible points.
In recapping that sordid affair, Andrew noted a number of problems that still exist now. The Habs can't move the puck without P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov on the ice. Alexei Emelin hasn't cut it in top-4 role envisioned for him before the season. And whether it's putting the right players in the right roles, or giving those players the structure they need to maximize their talent, the Habs can't seen to learn from their mistakes.
Two full months ago, it was said that with all the warning signs, the Habs would be hard pressed to maintain the 16-5-1 pace they brought into those Buffalo games. Almost exclusively on the strength of the play of Carey Price, the Canadiens are still on a similar trajectory through the halfway mark of the season. Even a god-like goaltender does not exempt the Habs from regression, though.
The team would be wise to heed the signals embedded in disappointing losses to the Arizonas and Buffalos of the world. Change is coming, one way or another, and the Habs would be wise to act while the choice is still theirs.
Should they fail to do so, their future will be as predictable as the team is right now.