The Habs need to snap out of their first-period doldrums

Starting games on one’s heels is not a recipe for short- or long-term success.

Coming off a four-day layoff, the Montreal Canadiens hit the ice utterly flat and out of sync. Passes went astray, pucks were bobbled, assignments were missed, and players made decisions, at both ends of the ice, that led to turnover after turnover.

Yes, rust from the extended break may have played a factor. Pre-game roster moves — adding Mike Hoffman, breaking up the top line, and subtracting Mike Matheson — likely also contributed. But none of these extenuating factors overrides the fact that this specific instance of first-period malaise is part of a growing pattern for the Canadiens.

Habs fans who watched the west coast road trip would have likely felt a sense of déjà vu as they observed the Los Angeles Kings take a 2-0 lead on the powder blue-clad home team. While the Canadiens’ performance against the Kings was by far the worst of the lot, the Habs had also come up short out of the gate against the Calgary Flames and Seattle Kraken, saved then only by opportune scoring and Jake Allen’s heroics. Even their first period against the Vancouver Canucks, a frame that ended with the Canadiens four goals to the good, was more even than the scoreboard indicated (which might have foreshadowed the next 40 minutes and 13 seconds).

This trend is largely at odds with the Habs’ five games prior to the road trip. Apart from being cut to ribbons by the Buffalo Sabres, the Canadiens played reasonably well to start matches, managing at least parity in victories against the Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Philadelphia Flyers.

Admittedly, that opposition lineup is not quite up to par compared with the likes of the Kraken and Oilers. The Flyers, Sabres, Blue Jackets, Blackhawks, and Sharks, put together, are currently averaging a 66.4-point pace over 82 games while the Flames, Oilers, Canucks, Kraken, and Kings together are averaging a 91.6-point pace. However, the Canadiens were themselves on pace for 88.3 points on the season coming into the Kings game. More than that, they had made a point of playing up to their opposition so far this season, notching a win against the regular-season juggernaut that is the Toronto Maple Leafs and beating the Pittsburgh Penguins twice.

The Canadiens are not expected to be good this year, but they’re expected to develop good habits — or at least start the process of developing good habits. Conflating the first period with the pre-game warmup is, quite obviously, not a good habit. Let’s see if the coaching staff, touted for their proactivity compared to their predecessors, can recognize and rectify this issue before it potentially snowballs into something much more serious as the grind of the season starts to really bite.

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