Habs Entering a Slippery Slope

For a while this season, the Montreal Canadiens looked like they wouldn’t lose two games in a row. Such a record allowed them to stay amongst the top teams in the Atlantic Division, keeping up with the likes of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins. While it would have been foolish to think that the inevitable wouldn’t happen, such performances brought some hope into a fan base in dire need of it. But alas, it seems like the pendulum is starting to swing the other way on the Habs.

Last night’s loss to the Carolina Hurricanes was their second loss in a row and the team has a 3-4-3 record in their last 10 games. We can look at this the positive way, saying that during that stretch, they’re only a game below .500 but where it gets serious is when looking at how the teams ahead of them are doing.

Have you had a look at who’s leading the Eastern Conference this morning? The Buffalo Sabres, who have won their last 10 games, are tops in the East! Yes, that’s 10 consecutive wins for a team which, not so long ago, was well behind the Canadiens. They are followed closely by the Lightning (6-4-0) and the Maple Leafs (7-3), holding the top-3 spots in the Atlantic.

The Boston Bruins (5-3-2) have been without three of their top-6 defensemen and without Patrice Bergeron for a while and they have the first wildcard spot in the East. The Hurricanes, who edged the Canadiens 2-1 last night thanks to a stellar performance by their goaltender Curtis McElhinney who stopped 48 of the 49 shots in his direction, have now leapfrogged the Habs for the last wildcard spot.

Help coming

Shea Weber had a successful return.

Last night was Shea Weber‘s first game in almost a year and the veteran All-Star defenseman didn’t disappoint. Weber logged the most ice time both teams included with 25:13 minutes. So much for easing him in! He finished the night with one assist, a plus -1 rating, three shots on goal, one hit, two blocked shots and one takeaway. Not too shabby ‘Dad’!

Coincidently (or not), with Jeff Petry slotted back behind Weber, the Habs allowed only 22 shots on goal against the Hurricanes last night, a much better prestation from a team which had been allowing goals and scoring chances like Santa distributing gifts at Christmas. The turning point of that game, in my opinion, was in the second period when Hurricanes’ defenseman Trevor Van Riemsdyk stole a goal from Jonathan Drouin with an active stick. Had that gone in, it could have been a totally different game.

Reports around Montreal say that Paul Byron is edging closer to a return, he who hasn’t played a game in the month of November. Joel Armia is still several weeks away but both those guys are huge parts of the Canadiens’ all-around game as both are quality penalty-killers and key contributors on the forecheck and defensive coverage.

Defense shuffle

The defensive pairing of Brett Kulak and Jeff Petry was good. While he was clearly out of game shape, Weber was better than expected. But his defensive pairing partner, David Schlemko, was not. And young Victor Mete had a rough night, finishing at minus -2. Here’s what I personally would like to see happening:

Reilly – Weber

Kulak – Petry

Schlemko/Mete – Benn/Ouellet

The Canadiens don’t play until Saturday when they will be hosting the New York Rangers, who are in third place in the Metropolitan division. The next day, the San Jose Sharks, fighting for top spot in the Pacific division, come to the Bell Centre for their only time this season. The Canadiens will complete the week with a home and home with the Ottawa Senators. Go Habs Go! 

Habs Defense And The Whole Nine Yards

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The old Detroit Red Wings under Mike Babcock were always a solid team and their biggest quality, in spite of having guys like Sergei Fedorov, Steve Yzerman, Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg leading the way, they were always known for their solid defense, making an average goaltender like Chris Osgood look like a top one. Of course, you had a Nicklas Lidstrom leading the way but if you ever noticed at the trade deadline, they always added another defenseman or two. And this is the era when Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin played his NHL career and learned his craft in the Chicago Blackhawks’ organization. 

While it has proven true that defense will win you championships more often than not, the strength is in quality, not in quantity. And that’s where the Canadiens just aren’t quite there. In Shea Weber, they have one of the best all round defenseman in the entire NHL. Not only is he a threat at the point on the powerplay, but he will intimidate you physically as one of the toughest players to go against, as attested by anyone in the league. To round it up, he is one of the best shutdown defensemen out there and by playing over 26 minutes per game (6th most in the NHL), opponents have to work for their goals.

The problem in Montreal is that Bergevin was never able to find Weber a suitable partner and while 19 year-old Victor Mete did well at the start of the season, the game might be catching up to him a bit, and his ice time has reflected that. Further, it’s not guys like Jordie Benn, Karl Alzner, Brendan Davidson or Joe Morrow who can step in there and eat the minutes needed to be paired with Weber.

 

Log jam

The strength of a good hockey team does rely on depth at the blueline but in the Canadiens’ case, while they certainly have the quantity, it’s the quality that’s lacking. Here’s what the Habs’ defense looks like, injured players included:

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Jeff Petry is Jeff Petry, with his ups and downs and the odd brain cramp. Alzner and Benn had a slow start but both have been playing better for a few games now. Davidson and Morrow have filled the gaps when needed but they are depth players. It does look like the internal solution rests on two unknowns…

Due to Weber’s injury, the Canadiens have called up former KHL star Jakub Jerabek, who was having a good season with the Laval Rockets of the AHL, while adapting to the North American smaller ice surfaces and style of play. In his first NHL game against Nashville, Jerabek did quite well for himself as coach Claude Julien gave him over 18 minutes of ice time. Is he a solution? Possibly, but time with tell.

Then you have David Schlemko who has yet to suit up for his first game as a Habs due to injury. He has been skating and he even made the recent road trip with the team, but hasn’t been cleared to return. But even when he does, he has lost the first quarter of the season and will be jumping in without a training camp so while the negative Nancy’s in the fanbase will be quick to be on his (or Bergevin’s) case, he will need some time to get in top game shape.

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Victor Mete will likely be loaned to Team Canada Junior

As for Victor Mete, you can expect the Canadiens to make him available to Team Canada for the World Junior Championships over the Christmas Holidays. This will be great for his development as he will be playing key minutes in a very high-tempo and high quality tournament, with other kids his age. While he doesn’t seem phased by it (yet), this tournament should do wonders for his confidence as well.

But as it stands today, including Weber and Schlemko (injured), the Canadiens have nine defensemen on their roster. When they come back, expect for at least one player movement at the blueline. Jerabek is waiver free, which means that the team can send him down without the risk of losing him through waivers. Everyone else (but Mete) has to clear. Sure, losing one of them wouldn’t be a huge blow but it would affect the team’s depth at that position in the even of injuries. Unless Bergevin manages to pull a rabbit out of his hat, something we are told by reputable NHL insiders, he has been working hard at. Go Habs Go!