Habs avert disaster to climb back into the playoff race

As a card-carrying member of hockey’s wretched armchair pundit class, I am not immune to bold statements that over time prove to be patently false, or worse. We inveterate bloggers straddle a thin line between divination, prescription, outrage, and abject wrongheadedness, and we do it happily, with no fear of losing our day jobs. Case in point: Just a few weeks I suggested Jonathan Drouin’s stay in Montreal was destined to end prematurely. I was among those who believed the Sainte-Agathe-born centreman-cum-winger was drowning in Montreal’s overheated media fishbowl and would eventually set a course, via the trade route, for calmer waters south of the Mason-Dixon line, where hockey often can take a backseat to football, basketball, baseball, and now that Vegas has an NHL team, gambling.

A reinvigorated Jonathan Drouin this season had given the lie to suggestions he would never live up to his billing as an impact forward. He was, until his untimely collision with the 8 train out of Washington, the Habs’ best and most consistent player, and losing him to injury left a huge hole in the Habs’ lineup, one the team has been hard-pressed to fill. The Canadiens’ performance after both he and Paul Byron went down, including the Tuesday evening massacre at the hands of the Bruins, did nothing to ease concerns that the Habs need all hands on deck to remain competitive. Adding to those concerns, through the final two weeks of November, was the play of Carey Price and Jeff Petry, with honourable mention to all but a few in the Habs’ forward group.

 The hope, of course, was that an internal solution would emerge and Habs would draw on the same depth and balanced attack that carried the team last season, with a return to form by Carey Price and, let’s face it, a renewed commitment to defence—supposedly the hallmark of Claude Julien-coached teams. But with the losses piling up – six straight entering the American Thanksgiving doubleheader against the Flyers and Bruins – that vaunted depth was not delivering the desired results, and there was a growing sense of urgency for Marc Bergevin to stop the bleeding by whatever means necessary, including via transaction. And you can bet the Canadiens’ GM was feeling the heat, because nothing concentrates the mind quite like hanging, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson.

All of this just days before the Habs made it eight straight, the rough patch now officially the size of PEI. Then, a workman-like victory against the pesky New York Islanders that saw the Canadiens, to a man, get back to basics with sound fundamental defence and solid team play. The same lunch-bucket recipe led the Canadiens to victory in four of the next five games, including a solid road win against an always tough Penguins’ squad, and the losing skid, the team’s worst in a decade, was over. The Canadiens’ leadership core played a predominant role in the turnaround, and it starts with the league’s most unheralded first line pivoted by the indefatigable Phillip Danault. Both he and Brendan Gallagher found a way to elevate their games, and the top line has supplied the lion’s share of the offence during the Habs’ modest hot streak. The defence, anchored by Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot, have done a better job of boxing out opponents on the penalty-kill—which was absolutely critical, with opponents converting at a brisk clip of close to 30% in the first 20 games of the season.

It seems the Habs can’t have it both ways, however: the team’s improved defence has come at a cost—a drop in offensive output, particularly through their bottom six. While the Suzuki and Thompson lines have failed to contribute much offensively, they do manage to keep the puck out of the Canadiens’ net—which is all well and good, but it doesn’t exactly scream contender. Late bloomer Joel Armia continues to show that there was another level to his game, one he was never given a chance to display on a stacked Winnipeg Jets roster. On many nights, from where I’m sitting, one hand buried in a bowl of ketchup chips, the other fumbling between the couch cushions for the remote, Armia has been the Canadiens’ best player, bar none. There’s a patience and persistence about his game, the way he uses his size and reach to work the low boards and wear opponents down before attacking the net. Without Armia’s contribution, the Habs have been getting little or nothing from their second line of late. Both Max Domi and Arturri Lehkonen have struggled to score, though Lehkonen makes up for it with stellar defensive play. If there was ever a time for Max Domi to become a reasonable facsimile of the player he was last season, that time is now. And if the Habs thought they’d tee up their pre-Christmas road trip with an easy home-ice victory against the league-worst Detroit Red Wings last Saturday, someone forgot to notify the Red Wings. The Canadiens, their record shows, continue to play to the level of their opposition. Which may bode well for their chances on the West Coast and then Florida, where the Habs will close out 2019 against six teams with winning records.

As Marc Bergevin cautioned in his Monday media scrum, the Montreal Canadiens, all things considered – the steady parade to the infirmary, the rookies learning on the fly – are about where they thought they’d be at this juncture of the season: clinging to a wildcard spot, their opponents in close pursuit. Had either the Leafs or Lighting played up to expectation through the first 20 games of the calendar, the Habs could well be 10 points out of a playoff berth with a West Coast swing on the near horizon.

There is no clear path to the postseason for the Montreal Canadiens. To suggest otherwise is pure fantasy. But they remain in the mix, which is the best we can expect, at least for the time being.

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