It’s crazy to think about, given how “small” the chances were on paper, but the Canadiens are very, very close to a playoff spot. They are only one point behind the Boston Bruins for the third automatic spot in the division, and tied with the Detroit Red Wings, who they just happen to play two times in the next three days.
Yes, there are games in hand, but those don’t tend to matter as much when you still have to play both teams as many times as the Canadiens play the Bruins and Red Wings this season.
Their slow start probably cost them any chance of catching Tampa Bay or Toronto at the top of the division, but to say they aren’t in a playoff race or that they need to play a certain win percentage to have a chance is now out the window. They probably can’t afford another long losing streak, but you are only as far out of the playoffs as the teams ahead of you are in front, and luckily for the Canadiens, they play in the Atlantic division.
2. The defence suddenly doesn’t look hopeless
It’s amazing what happens when you make a subtle change. The additions of David Schlemko, Jakub Jerabek, and even Joe Morrow have completely changed the outlook of this defence. They aren’t going to have you confused with Erik Karlsson but they are effective puck movers. They can exit the zone, they can make passes and they can be somewhat useful in the offensive zone.
This is what the optimists hoped the defence would look like going into the season. Nothing that will blow you away, but they also wouldn’t look overwhelmed. We already saw the Canadiens defence at their worst, and now we’re starting to see the kind of group that Marc Bergevin put together. It’s not perfect, but the team has looked much better and they don’t even have Shea Weber in the lineup.
Schlemko, Morrow and Jerabek bring a similar style to Victor Mete but they have one thing that he doesn’t and it makes a huge difference: confidence of the coach.
It’s not a coincidence that Schlemko and Jerabek led the Canadiens defence in shot attempt percentage (Corsi) at five-on-five. The line of Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Mike Hoffman only had one attempt when Schlemko was on the ice and the pair dominated the line of Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Tom Pyatt and Ryan Dzingel. That’s huge for the Canadiens going forward, and especially when they get Weber back.
3. Start the Carr
Daniel Carr was finally recalled, and while the reason may be because Jonathan Drouin is out for tonight’s game, I hope part of the reason was that the team realized that they need a much bigger contribution from their fourth line.
The Canadiens are in a position where three of their lines are all contributing offensively. Brendan Gallagher’s line with Charles Hudon and Tomas Plekanec were creating chances like crazy. So was the line of Alex Galchenyuk with Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron. The Max Pacioretty line with Phillip Danault and Andrew Shaw line got a goal and were generally wreaking havoc in the offensive end.
And then there’s the fourth line of Nicolas Deslauriers, Byron Froese and Jacob de la Rose. They played less than eight minutes of even strength, and even then, the only line they got shot attempts (two) against was the line of Gabriel Dumont, Alexandre Burrows and Nate Thompson and the defence pair of Ben Harpur and Cody Ceci. But they were still on the wrong end of the battle. Even though they started every shift in the offensive zone, they still finished -7 on the night in shot attempts.
When you can’t win your favourable matchups against the other team’s fourth line and bottom pair at home and you are utterly useless against any other line, there’s a problem. And it’s not like the Canadiens don’t have any alternatives. They have Carr, who they just recalled and has 12 goals in the American Hockey League. They have Chris Terry, who also scored last night. These are players who can make a difference so that the fourth line can at least hold their own and allow the other three lines to exploit matchups instead of just making up for their wasted minutes.
Carr’s recall was a positive step and we’ll see how it changes the fortunes of the team’s fourth line.
4. The defence even looks good in their own end
Although the shots were closer than they have been, the Canadiens won the scoring chance battle, and they even won the high-danger scoring chance battle. A big reason the team has allowed less goals is that they are allowing less dangerous chances.
Yes, having Carey Price back (and on his game) makes a big difference but the Canadiens are helping him out (when they aren’t pushing players into him). The shot chart was much better than it has been lately and I think you can expect it to continue that way as players like Jerabek and Schlemko get into the groove of things and Weber comes back.
The shot total in the slot is a lot lower than it had been.
This team isn’t perfect but they weren’t even close to as bad as they looked early in the year. We’re starting to see that now. And it’s a lot less frustrating.
5. Carey Price
It’s not often that Carey Price surprises you, but he has surprised me since coming back from injury.
Given his start of the season, even if you were the most optimistic person ever, you had to wonder whether Price would ever get back to the top of his game, and the answer was a resounding yes. He has stopped 100/102 shots his way in the three games, and has made it look easy. It’s basically vintage Carey Price and you almost forget how good it feels to have him back there at the top of his game.
The difference is huge and it’s a huge sigh of relief both for the rest of this season, and for the contract that he will be getting starting next season. I never doubted that he would turn it around, but having it happen this quickly after coming back had an insane effect on the outlook of this team.