About twenty games back, a friend of mine who's a great fan of the Canucks started a conversation with me about the Canadiens, and asked me how it was it they kept winning.
"They're doing it with mirrors" was my answer.
It seemed like they must be, or they had a Dorian Gray painting of last season's lineup in the attic of the New Forum. Chicken feet in a pentagram. Or something.
Anyway, the wide support for Michel Therrien as a candidate for the Jack Adams Trophy derived from the fact that he took essentially the same lineup that hiccuped through its season into last place in 2012 to first or its environs this year. Sure, a new system better suited for the players on hand, and the addition of a few character veterans, as well as the return to good health of Brian Gionta and especially Andrei Markov, could partially explain this rebound, but there was a fantastic aspect to it too. Rookies who come and produce right away, and inject youth and energy but no trepidation or mistakes. Timely goals, with the team usually scoring first, yet finding ways to make comebacks when necessary. A very healthy lineup, with the team avoiding injuries to its leaders, and finding ways to palliate for the few it did suffer.
Lots was also made of how this was a shortened season, and weird things could happen. Extended streaks one way or another could decide the season, without the possibility that a normal 82-game slog of a season could normalize results and smooth over statistical anomalies.
Over the last four games, we've seen the team lose a game against the resurgent Capitals, win one on autopilot against the amorphous Sabres, and then collapse against the Maple Leafs and now the Flyers. It's noteworthy that Alexei Emelin has perhaps not coincidentally been absent for four games now, and Brandon Prust had just returned from a shoulder injury before bowing out for this game.
It's also noteworthy that in the last two games, the Canadiens have been pushed around again, something which was routine last season, but which had radically decreased this year, maybe because the opponents were usually playing from behind and didn't have the latitude to take liberties. Also, the powerplay was clicking along and enough of a threat to dissuade the rough-and-tumble leanings of the opposition.
As we approach the playoffs, and the game tightens up while referees put away their whistles, our adversaries' propensity to try and get us off our game by playing an aggressive, physical style does not bode well. Whereas this tactic was useless earlier in the season, due to the threat of the powerplay and the team toughness approach, it now seems to be have an effect. We see players like Tomas Plekanec losing their cool. We see David Desharnais become completely neutralized, unable to dart into open space and find his wingers. We see Lars Eller retreat into his shell.
A word about Lars. He's made great strides this season, and he still has a lot to learn, but in games like this it would be great if he took up more room on the ice, rather than less. We keep raving about how he's so big and so jacked, it's time that he learn to use that size and strength in games like these. We're not asking for him to turn into Eric Lindros or Mark Messier, he's not that type of player, but Bobby Smith for example was a centre with size who could play a fast offensive style, but when the going got tough he could play with an edge and assert himself and use his size to protect himself and his linemates. I'm not saying I want him to fight or goon it up, but when Nazem Kadri runs him into the boards, and he doesn't respond, that's a problem. He needs to look around the dressing room and understand that he's one of the bigger guys in there, and that he should play like it.
If toughness was the only issue, that would be one thing, but another glaring problem is our defence. Again, after around twenty games, we started to feel that maybe we were set on defence. P.K. Subban took a couple of games to get up to speed, then took off and hasn't really looked back. The return of Andrei Markov and his pairing with Alexei Emelin gave the team a strong unit that matched up well, covered up each other's weaknesses, and played well at either end of the rink. Francis Bouillon played as if he was 31, not 36. Josh Gorges was the steady Eddie, and Raphaël Diaz was markedly improved from last season, and especially effective offensively. Overall, they were a smaller group, but very agile, and the new system played to their strength. Aided by Carey Price, they'd retrieve the puck and move it out quickly, instead of getting bogged down and hammered in their own end, like last year. They didn't need to be big. Actually, the fact that they were smaller and quicker played to our advantage.
The injury to Alexei Emelin has been a big change, and has destabilized at least two pairings. Andrei Markov is markedly less effective, and the third pairing is now officially unreliable. We went from having our defence squad be a strength we can rely on to a weakness the opposition can exploit in one fell swoop. There is some tinkering we can do, but we don't have any new horses to team up. The kids in Hamilton aren't ready to go, as Nathan Beaulieu demonstrated tonight. We used to roll out three defence pairings, with roughly equivalent icetime between them.
So we're back to being small and a target for intimidation, and having our defence be P.K. and Josh Gorges being our only reliable defence pair, and even that's not a role Josh should be playing, his skillset is more suited to being a fifth defenceman, not a #2. The only thing that can save us is miraculous goaltending.
And Carey needs a lot of work right now. It's not his new pads, Marc Denis of RDS debunked that theory tonight, explaining that the goalie pads nowadays are meant to be stiff, when they're softer and broken in that's the signal that they need to be replaced. He explained that he's used brand new pads the night that he received them, with no ill effects. Maybe Glen Healy's info, based on his experience, is now obsolete. In any case, there's no solution to the goaltending issue. We all thought earlier on that we'd only go as far as Carey would take us, and that's even more true now. He has a half-dozen games to turn it around. All we can do is hope that a lot of work with his coach in practice, and that a few more normal games get him back on track.
And now I'm really happy that Marc Bergevin didn't go all in. It must have been tempting, but he took the long view, and his approach now seems validated. He knew that the team wasn't set yet, that one key injury could make this whole thing unravel.
There have been reports that Mr. Bergevin relied on his experience with the Blackhawks, when they could have made a deadline trade at the cost of a first-round pick, which they declined to do, since they felt the team wasn't "ready to win yet". Sure enough, that first-rounder turned out to be Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews, the anecdote was unclear, but in hindsight the right decision was made.
We are in the same situation of not being ready yet. We don't have a Toews-Kane-Hossa-Keith core together yet, or a Crosbie-Malkin-Letang. We still need to gather up pieces to be a consistent contender, and to fritter away prospects and draft picks to plaster over the fundamental weaknesses being exposed right now would have been the wrong move to make.