Over two weeks ago, the Montreal Canadiens were atop the Northeast Division and second overall in the Eastern Conference, seemingly assured of home-ice advantage heading into the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs.
But since clinching a playoff berth on April 12 with a 5-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, the Canadiens entered their April 25th game against Winnipeg having dropped five of their last six games.
They’v subsequently fallen to second in the Northeast behind the Boston Bruins and fourth overall in the conference.
It’s not that the Canadiens lost five of six, but how they lost those games. As summarized by NHL.com’s Dave Lazo, the Canadiens were “outscored 26-12 in those losses thanks to a mix of poor defense, putrid penalty killing and a parade of slow starts.”
Goaltender Carey Price, rock-steady for most of the season, was reduced to awkwardly flopping and flailing around in his crease. The club’s disciplined defensive play fell apart, while most of their best scorers came up short.
The loss of physical blueliner Alexei Emelin to a season-ending knee injury against the Bruins was cited as a reason for the decline. However, in the aftermath of Emelin’s injury, the Habs went on to beat the Bruins, narrowly lose to the surging Washington Capitals, and convincingly defeat the Sabres.
It’s also been suggested ageing blueliner Andrei Markov not only misses his defense partner Emelin, but is wearing down under a heavy workload. That may be, but it doesn’t account for the total collapse of the Canadiens overall defensive game, which could explain why Price has gotten away from his usually solid positioning. He no longer seems to trust his defense.
That’s not to absolve Price of blame. At times he was let down by his defense, but he’s had games where he’s failed to make big saves and allowed soft goals.
Heading into Thursday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets, only Max Pacioretty was the most consistent of the Habs top scorers, averaging a point-per-game over the course of the slump.
P.K. Subban, at one point the Habs leading scorer, has notched only two points, both in the 7-3 loss to the Flyers.
David Desharnais had four points while Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec each had three. Michael Ryder managed only one point, perhaps still hampered by an upper-body injury which sidelined him from the Habs 6-4 loss to the Penguins. Markov, meanwhile, managed only one goal.
Rene Bourque’s return to the lineup provided no offensive boost, managing only an assist over the course of the slump.
Pacioretty and promising youngsters Lars Ellers (4 points), Alex Galchenyuk (4 points) and Brendan Gallagher (3 points) were the only bright spots offensively for the Candiens over this period.
Coach Michel Therrien was touted earlier this season as an Adams Trophy nominee for his efforts in turning around the Habs this season. Over the past couple of weeks, however, he appears as puzzled by his club’s woeful performance as the fans and pundits.
It’s almost as though the Canadiens, having clinched a playoff berth with over two weeks remaining in the season, have mentally checked out.
Of course, there’s probably far more behind the decline than just one issue.
Attitude may be part of the problem. Emelin’s injury was undoubtedly a contributing factor. One or two of their better players may be nursing undisclosed injuries which hampers their performance.
Having exceeded expectations for months, perhaps a decline in performance was inevitable.
Some pundits and bloggers dismiss the decline as a serious problem. After all, the Canadiens clinched a playoff berth, so why worry over a late-season slump?
But in this shortened season, a slump can have dire consequences.
Therrien and several Habs have repeatedly said they must find a way to get back to their previous winning ways, but they’ve failed to turn those words into reality.
It’s possible the Canadiens could rally and go on to win a round or two in the upcoming playoffs.
Their fans are certainly hoping for that. Otherwise, if their struggles continue into the post-season, it won’t matter who their first round opponent is, because the Habs will make a quick exit.
Until two weeks ago, some pundits were suggesting the Canadiens should be considered a serious Cup contender.
No one’s making that suggestion now.