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Wednesday night in Columbus, the Montreal Canadiens were dealt their third loss in a row. Such results were to be expected in this latter half of the season for a team that wasn’t all that good before selling off some players at the deadline, but the trend is concerning. The margin of defeat has grown from game to game, and the biggest culprit has been the complete lack of care in the defensive play.
The indifference to focusing on the details was perhaps most evident when Cole Caufield decided to fly the zone before possession had been fully obtained, and then tried to improvise his defensive recovery. He had scored a goal on a similar play a few games earlier, but it’s not a good habit for the rookie to get into. There’s much more he can learn from effective defensive positioning in the final handful of games than showing off his hands on a breakaway, and the most important of those things is learning how to turn good defence into more chances to use his offensive skills.
His may have been the most obvious case of a lack of commitment to the details, but every teammate was guilty of those on the night, and not even the deafening blast from the Blue Jackets’ cannon motivated them to play better. They were sent home by a 5-1 defeat that may stand as one of the worst efforts they’ve had all season, which is a hard list to crack at this point.
Trending in the opposite direction is Montreal’s opponent tonight, the New York Islanders, who are playing more like what was expected of them to begin the year. The vast majority of their roster is already signed for at least next season, and though they have no hope of making the playoffs, they are using the final portion of the season to develop the form they want for 2022-23.
Tale of the Tape
|44.8% (31st)||Scoring-chances-for %||46.0% (25th)|
|2.57 (29th)||Goals per game||2.75 (23rd)|
|3.81 (32nd)||Goals against per game||2.74 (7th)|
|13.6% (31st)||PP%||19.2% (22nd)|
|74.7% (28th)||PK%||85.0% (4th)|
In their last 20 games, the Islanders have a 13-6-1 record, following up a 21-24-8 start. Their defensive play is just as strong as it’s ever been, ranking ninth in the league in goals allowed in that first portion of the campaign and eighth on this recent run. The difference is in their offensive play, adding about two-thirds of a goal per game to their average.
It will be no surprise to Canadiens fans that Brock Nelson is leading that charge. He was one of New York’s better players in the first part of the year with 21 goals in 44 games, scoring four of those versus the Habs on November 4. In the last 20 games he has 23 points, 10 of those goals, and he now leads the team in scoring.
Nelson was one of just four players to contribute above a half-point-per-game pace in the first 53 games, and now he’s joined by eight teammates in this final portion of the season. The list includes Anders Lee, who is looking more like the 40-goal-scorer he was a few seasons ago, noted Habs-killer Jean-Gabriel Pageau, defencemen Adam Pelech, and the 22-year-old Noah Dobson, who is putting together a very solid year.
To stop that offensive charge, it may be time for the Canadiens to unveil their secret weapon. Going through the first six months of the season rehabbing a knee injury through various on- and off-ice work, Carey Price is gearing up to play his first game, and a rare Friday night match at the Bell Centre could be the time for that debut.
Surely that will snap the players to attention, with several of them playing in front of him for the first time since he helped drag them to a Stanley Cup Final a year ago. No one should want to force a player struggling with recovery from a nagging knee injury to scramble around the crease like Samuel Montembeault has been doing in recent games, so there should be more support for the franchise netminder. You can expect Price to start doing some coaching of his own if that’s not the case.