The December road trip
The Montreal Canadiens always hit the road at the end of the year to play out the month of December away from the Bell Centre. They rarely find success on the trip, usually returning home to start the new year in a worse position than when they left.
This year there was at least some hope that things would be different. The Canadiens won the first two games played in Western Canada, and were set up for a decent run. They’ve proceeded to lose four games in a row, now with a 2-5 record since their last home game on December 14.
They’ve scored just three goals on their current four-game losing streak, last night not even able to break the shutout bid of Florida Panthers goaltender James Reimer. The team has scored just 99 goals on the season, with only five teams below them in that metric, and have played more games than all but one of those clubs.
Through 39 games, the team points lead remains 21, with the top offensive contributors barely above a half-point-per-game pace and ranking around 150th in the scoring race.
Forwards are searching for answers
The players are doing their best, and are getting chances, but are becoming frsutrated with the lack of results. The forwards and hounding the puck in the offensive zone, attempting to cycle and get it to the front of the net, and jamming away when it does eventually get there, but they’re not seeing much success.
At one point, Jonathan Drouin returned to the bench, slamming the door after not being able to find a way to get the puck in the net. Brought in to help solve the problems faced by the team, ranking sixth in points and eighth in goals is beginning to have its effects.
The frustration from a forward group relied upon to do all the work to create goals is precisely what was predicted for the team after a summer spent offloading puck-moving defencemen. With few blue-liners able to transport the puck, generating offence is nealy solely up to the forwards.
They need to get the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone despite facing three or four defenders right from the moment they pick up the puck, which usually means being forced to chip it into the zone. There they need to grind along the boards in an attempt to win it back, and hope one of the forwards can get in front for a chance. All this while a slower blue-line corps hangs back near the line in case the other team is the one to gain possession of the puck, meaning there is little pressure on the the top side when the puck does make it to the front of the goal.
The coach wants sustained pressure in the offensive zone to create chances, but with the forwards relied on to perform about four different tasks in order to set up a single shot on goal, there are too many places where things can go wrong, and the best they can hope for is one attempt at a goal before the puck goes the other way.
The season is lost
The Canadiens now have the fourth-lowest winning percentage in the league. With the loss to Florida, they fall further back of the first team they would need to leapfrog in the standings, and even the Panthers will have a difficult time making the post-season.
A few models give the Canadiens about a 4% chance of playing beyond the end of the regular season, and that’s with the majority of the offensive players (minus Shea Weber, who is still out indefinitely with no mention of a return date) in the lineup.
The team is definitely better than what it has shown, but its current construction simply isn’t set up to compete. The focus in the off-season was on limiting shots against at the expense of offence. The result is a team that currently ranks 25th in goals against, giving up more than three goals a game.
The Montreal Canadiens have a difficult enough time scoring one goal, let alone four. It’s time to shift the focus to the future and begin setting up the team to compete in the modern league for the years ahead.