The Montreal Canadiens have been a sad sack of a team for the past two months, losing to numerous perennial bottom feeders, seemingly en route to claiming the distinct honour of being the worst team in the league, quantified and qualified. Yet every time they play a game at home after a road trip, it is hoped that somehow the home ice advantage, and the energy that the fans bring, will be the spark that reinvigorates them and rights this badly listing ship.
The Habs desperately needed to come out strong and try to set the pace for the game, but the polar opposite happened, as sloppy passing, disorganized offensive rushes, and a generally poor performance all around signalled that the game would be like all the rest. The effort was accentuated by Torrey Mitchell breaking his stick, and everyone on the bench being completely oblivious to his plight.
This game against the Buffalo Sabres was more of the same as we have witnessed from the Canadiens in recent months, where effort levels were inconsistent, filled with brief flurries of offensive activity, followed shortly thereafter by a shot to their own foot, continuing to demonstrate the frustrating problem of their inability to maintain any sustained momentum.
Shots were actually 6-0 for Montreal at the start of the game, but Buffalo scored on their first shot when Montreal's defence completely fell apart and lost coverage on a simple dump and chase play, leaving Marcus Foligno completely by himself in front of Mike Condon. Foligno slipped the puck five hole for a 1-0 Buffalo lead, completely deflating an emotionally vulnerable team, and taking the fanbase with them.
There is no explaining the awful puck luck that the Habs continue to impressively demonstrate during this tenebrous slide. Montreal had a great chance to tie the game in the second period when they orchestrated a beautiful three-on-two offensive zone entry, only for Desharnais' stick to explode on a shot attempt in a high-scoring area while the Sabres were on the ropes.
Montreal came out of the gates flying in the second period, and at times looked like their old selves, fleetingly reminding us of the old glory days of October. First Dale Weise managed to (barely) convert a tip-in on a power play, with a nice passing sequence by Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban.
Then, later in the period, Alex Galchenyuk capitalized on a set play off a Tomas Plekanec faceoff win, turning Ryan O'Reilly inside out, and scoring the kind of goal that we expected of him at the start of the season, slipping the puck right between the legs of Robin Lehner to put the Habs ahead 2-1.
Despite the lead, the Habs continuously played with fire, taking three consecutive minor penalties, ultimately surrendering their lead in the third period on yet another botched defensive zone coverage. Jamie McGinn was left wide open in front of the net, allowing him to tip in a bullet pass from the top of the circle.
This was followed soon after by Johan Larsson giving the Sabres the lead when he scored only his second goal of the season off of an east-west passing play, his stick unchecked as he drove the net and took a perfectly placed pass from Jake McCabe.
Former Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta sealed the deal by scoring an empty-net goal from his own side of centre ice in a symbolic final nail in the coffin. The siren sounded with a final score of 4-2 for Buffalo as the fans solemnly filed towards the exits, accepting that the organization has seemingly determined that a season without Carey Price (which is now looking even more likely) is not a season worth investing in.
So, as we head into the month of February, games will mean less and less, playoff hopes will dim, and talk of trading assets and preparing for the draft will dominate conversation amongst the faithful fans, with hopes that the 2016-17 season will not bare the ill fortune that plagued the team on this relinquished campaign.
The best line combination for the Habs was the trio of Galchenyuk, Plekanec, and Brendan Gallagher. They created many scoring opportunities, and had 13 shots on goal — a third of the team's total shots.
Therrien's insistence on placing Pacioretty on the same line as Dale Weise remains perplexing as these players clearly have no chemistry or complementary skill sets.
Sven Andrighetto played in his first game since his most recent call-up, subbing in for the injured Lucas Lessio. Although he showed tremendous flashes of speed and offensive creativity, he played a team-low 16 shifts the entire game, recycling a time-tested Therrien tradition of giving rookies absolutely no freedom to play their game, and punishing them for taking risks.
The fourth line of Mitchell, Brian Flynn, and Devante Smith-Pelly was downright dominated all evening, all posting negative Corsi differentials. Gone are the days that this very same combination controlled the play at the start of the season. At this point, with the season all but over, there is little sense keeping Flynn and Smith-Pelly around, as the time can be used to give some younger players ice time.
The Habs defensive coverage was for the most part pretty vile, as every blue-liner was responsible for at least one glaring error. The decision to play Alexei Emelin over Mark Barberio was complete nonsense on numerous levels. Emelin played poorly, appearing tentative with the puck, and frequently failing to clear the zone and allowing the Sabres to maintain zone presence, and his broken coverage led directly to the Sabres first goal.
The theory that inserting Emelin over Barberio was to allow the Russian to play more minutes was also a faulty premise, as Andrei Markov still played 23 minutes, second to Subban's 25 minutes, and the third-highest TOI of any player from either team for the night.
The Canadiens have a few days before their next set of back-to-backs this weekend. They will host Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers in the first game of the Hockey Day in Canada triple-header before taking on the Carolina Hurricanes on Super Bowl Sunday.