Monday, March 1, 2021

Weekend rankings: Can the Canadiens season be saved?

How’s that for a dramatic headline? Look, it’s the Habs and they’re losing. Nobody’s going to do subtlety and nuance.

But I’ll blow the suspense by revealing the answer in the second paragraph. Can this season be saved? Yes, of course. They’re still holding down a playoff spot, we’ve already seen this lineup rack up wins early on, and they’re still one of the better possession teams at 5-on-5, which we’re told is a good predictor of future success. Nothing’s hopeless here.

Will it be saved? That gets dicier, because man, things are not good right now.

Let’s reset on a nightmare February. On Groundhog Day, the Habs beat the Canucks, ending a two-week stretch that saw them face Vancouver five times and take nine of 10 points, all while scoring at will. That ran their overall record to 7-1-2, and they were all but anointed the division’s best team. Marc Bergevin’s moves had all worked perfectly, and the relatively small number of skeptics had been proven wrong. (I was one of those offseason skeptics, but I bailed on it quickly, because even when I’m right I find a way to be wrong.) With four good lines and a smart system and nobody playing poorly, the team was so good it was getting boring.

Two nights after that win over the hapless Canucks, the Habs lost to the Senators. No big deal, it was a trap game against a bad team and they got their revenge in a rematch. But then came a loss to the Maple Leafs, and then another to the Oilers, and soon they’d lost seven of eight, including five straight. Last week, they fired coach Claude Julien, a move that would have seemed unthinkable just two weeks ago.

So now what?

New head coach Dominique Ducharme has already made some tweaks, but a pair of losses to the Jets means there won’t be an instant turnaround. Ducharme was Julien’s assistant, so he should be able to maintain that successful 5-on-5 system while concentrating on upgrading the lackluster special teams. But 5-on-5 possession only gets you so far if you can’t finish, and that’s where Bergevin’s decision to abandon his years-long pursuit of top-line talent in favor of a more balanced approach may not be the success it seemed like. The Canadiens can roll out three or four lines that can score, but who’s the go-to guy when you absolutely need a big goal? OK, Tyler Toffoli if it’s against the Canucks, but what about the rest of the time? Right now, the team’s leading scorer is 33-year-old defenseman Jeff Petry, which probably isn’t how Bergevin drew it up.

But maybe that doesn’t matter, because we haven’t mentioned the elephant in the room. Like so many other slumping teams, all the analysis in the world can just be boiled down to one short sentence: The goaltending is bad. That’s it. Bad goaltending sinks good teams, and that’s what Montreal’s been getting on too many nights.

In a weird way, that might be good news for Ducharme, because he has two established goaltenders and only one has been struggling. Jake Allen has played well, including in a Saturday loss in which Montreal was clearly the better team. Go with the hot hand for a little bit, and get the season back under control. Simple enough. But of course it isn’t, because the other goalie is Carey Price, a 33-year-old carrying the league’s highest cap hit for five more years after this one. The plan was that Allen wouldn’t just upgrade the backup slot, but that he’d give Price enough nights off that the starter would get back to the elite level of play that the league still insists he’s capable of, even if the last few years of numbers disagree. It hasn’t worked. Price is muddling through yet another shaky season.

Does Ducharme sit his star and go with the guy who’s playing better? That sounds like the obvious answer, and maybe it is, but where does that leave you next year and beyond? And does that even matter, when you’ve got one year to work with in a very winnable Canadian division before you presumably go back to sharing the Atlantic with the Bruins and Lightning? If this keeps going off the rails and the Habs miss the playoffs, it’s possible that neither Ducharme nor Bergevin are around to worry about the fallout. (And yes, the rest of us have our popcorn ready in case Patrick Roy’s music hits.)

Or maybe Price heats up, the special teams get a few bounces, the team plays like it did on Saturday but without the other team’s goalie stealing it, Montreal makes the playoffs and beats the Maple Leafs and everyone is happy. The turnaround would need to start soon, but they’ve got a winnable slate of games coming up, with the Senators tomorrow, two more against the Jets and then, like a shimmering oasis on the horizon, two more against the Washington Generals Canucks.

Can the season be saved? Yes, of course it can. Will it? We’ll find out, and maybe soon. And it’s Montreal, so whether you want to or not, you’ll hear all about it.

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