Hockey

Did you know the Habs finished two points out of a playoff spot last year? I sure didn’t. Considering all the noise they make and all the complaining they do that you have to pay attention to them because of HISTORY and CULTURE (that being that they speak the French language like they’ve had an aluminum bat taken to their cranium, I guess), that’s probably the quietest Canadiens season in history. They certainly are more loud when they just plain suck because of what a travesty of justice that is. But when they simply fade into the background…well, that’s rare. We should cherish it. And it could happen again.

2018-2019

44-30-8 96 points (4th in Atlantic)

3.00 GF/G (14th)  2.88 GA/G (13th)  +10 GD

54.4 CF% (3rd)  54.6 xGF% (3rd)

13.2 PP% (30th)  80.9 PK% (13th)

Goalies: As it has been, as it will be, Carey Price takes the torture chamber that is the Montreal crease. It all begins and ends with him, which means any talking point about the Habs in La Belle Province has a 75% chance of being about him. At this point he must be used to it or totally deaf. Price was healthy last year, which was something of an upset, and he was…fine? A .918 in last year’s heightened scoring environment is better than it originally looks, but not up to the standard Price himself has set. It was also the second consecutive season he wasn’t up above .920, which is what the Habs are paying for with the $10M a year Price gets from here until AOC is on her second term in the White House.

At 32, there’s little to no reason to think Price is past it, other than maybe the higher-than-usual odometer reading thanks to his debut at a precocious age. The days of him putting up .930+ SV%s are over, but the Canadiens shouldn’t need that either. Price should be around .920 minimum, and another sustained season of health could see him creep up to .925 or higher which gets him back in the Vezina discussion, a place he used to call home. There are few goalies you’d take ahead of him if you needed to have a game to save your dog, that’s for sure, despite Pat Foley’s and drunken Hawks fan declarations that Corey Crawford is better.

Backing him up will be Keith Kinkaid, which as a backup is about as solid as you can get. He bailed out Corey Schneider in New Jersey for a couple years when Schneider’s body was turning into decommissioned flubber, though he himself was on one last year at .891. The two years before that were .913 and .916 though, and he definitely gives you representative-plus goaltending from the #2 spot. This is just about a question mark-less position for the Habs. Which they need, because everywhere else has more than a few.

Defense: As we tour the skaters of Montreal, you’ll notice they don’t have a frontline player in either spot. There’s no genuine top-pairing defensemen here, and really no genuine top line forward either. They are going to try and do it with faded stars, foot soldiers, or didn’t-quite-get-theres. I’m contractually obligated to tell you they think Shea Weber is still a top man, but injuries and time have eroded whatever mobility he had. Stand him up and give him time and he still has a doomsday gun of a shot, but that didn’t help their anemic power play much last year in the rare times he was actually upright.

They signed Ben Chiarot from Winnipeg, except no one has ever pointed out whatever it was Chiarot did with the Jets that’s supposed to make me shorts get tight. Jeff Petry and Brett Kulak are serviceable puck-movers down the lineup, and Jordie Benn has a beard. Victor Mete had a rough go in his first full go-around in the league but is the real promise on the squad here, if Claude Julien doesn’t have him racked in Victoria Square.

There’s just not that much special here, which makes their glittering metrics all the more shocking. The forwards once again will have to do most of the work in transition, which affects how much they can finish, as you’ll see…

Forwards: Again, no frontline talent. The Canadiens would love to argue that Max Domi is, but that would be the definition of pissing in my ear. He’s fine, he’s a good rhythm guitarist but not a lead. Jonathan Drouin has had every chance in the world now to prove all the hype he got and bed-wetting he did were worth it, and he hasn’t yet. Brendan Gallagher is a highly effective forechecker/net front pest/garbage-goal getter, but that’s it. Domi led this team with 72 points. Tomas Tatar was the second-leading scorer. When Tomas Tatar is among your leading scorers, that makes you the Red Wings of four or five years ago. And where did that get them? Face in the dirt, that’s what.

And the Habs haven’t really done anything to improve it this year. Ryan Poehling looks sure to be on the team, and Nick Suzuki just might, but to expect them to carry the flag…er, torch…sorry, hate to insult your tiring hands you pompous fuckwits, is beyond ambitious. We love Phillip Danault around here, but he’s a checking center who should chip in scoring. Not the engine of your second line. That’s what he has to be on this team.

The hope would be that Jesperi Kotkaniemi has an offensive leap in him at 20 to go along with his already stellar 200-foot game. And maybe he does, but again, that’s pinning hopes on a 20-year-old.

Still, as mentioned above, the Habs were able to carry some very impressive underlying numbers last year. They did that because even if the forwards aren’t blessed with dash and finish, they are with speed. All four lines here can really go, so they can pressure everywhere on the ice, help out their d-men deep in their zone and still get up to the offensive end. That leaves them pretty tired, and it doesn’t do a lot when you’re creating attempts and chances that you don’t have a lot of finish to make count. But if they can match those metrics again and get a slice of luck, maybe they could find the extra points they need to make the playoffs.

Prediction: They’re in the wrong division. It’s hard to see where they’re going to make up ground on any of Toronto, Boston, or Tampa, which leaves them scrapping for a wildcard. Luckily, there isn’t much impressive in the other division, and Columbus’s spot is certainly going to be marked available. Any bump up from Price, or an unforeseen SH% spike from a forward or two and the Habs could get there. Or their aging defense can’t be held up by Price, and the forwards can’t do most of the work again and they’ll miss by a lot.

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vs.

RECORDS: Hawks 31-30-9   Canadiens 37-27-7

PUCK DROP: 6pm

TV: WGN

WELL WE’RE NOT GONNA, WE’RE GONNA HAVE A SANDWICH: Habs Eyes On The Prize

Two teams scrapping desperately for playoff spots will meet up on Hockey Night In Canada in Montreal tonight. Which sounds weird given there’s a 10-point difference between the two. But that’s the tale of East and West this year. We don’t make the rules.

Though they’re hardly the best team in the East you can find, there are not too many teams the Hawks should want to see less after their attempted 3rd period sepuku against the Leafs on Wednesday. That’s because the Habs are one of the faster teams around, with four lines of nippy forwards whose only aim is to get up the ice as quickly and efficiently as possible. They’re one of the best possession teams in the league, and are probably a premier sniper away from being much higher in the standings. Seeing as how the Hawks are slow and don’t possess the puck, it’s not really the best matchup at all. You saw what happened when a fast team really gets going against the Hawks last out. They’re still picking up parts of the Hawks off the Toronto ice and trying to identify it through dental records.

But still the Habs are clinging on in the East and the Atlantic. If the music were to stop today, Les Habitants would not have a chair and would have to sit over there with a juice box. They’re two points behind both the Jackets and Hurricanes for the wildcard spots, and the Canes have a game in hand as well. It would be a second-straight season of no playoffs and third in four, which for an organization that thinks of itself as the center of the hockey world, if not universe entirely, would be unacceptable. So how did we get here?

Hard to figure. The big, glaring, pulsing rash is that the Canadiens have a power play that looks like what the Hawks’ used to looked like. It’s dead last in the league, connecting at a 12% rate. Pretty much everywhere else the Habs are at least middle of the pack, if not better, but because they can’t get easier goals they’re having to win every game at even-strength. And that’s hard to do when you’re merely functional everywhere else and not buoyant. It basically leaves you with the good record Montreal has, but in the East that’s only enough to hope to squeeze in.

Up and down the lineup you’ll see players slotted just a touch higher than they should be. Brendan Gallagher and Max Domi have been the most dynamic, but they’re both probably second-line players on a really good team. Only one of them is here. Phillip Danault causes cartoon hearts to float out of our chest, but he’s a #3 and not a #2. Tomas Tatar shouldn’t be on a top-six of a team that means to do anything meaningful, as Red Wings fans can attest. It’s a team that is just short pretty much everywhere.

And Carey Price is also functional-to-good, though not at the moment the galactic being he used to be. A .915 SV% is nothing to sneeze at these days, but doesn’t put him amongst the league leaders, which used to be his hood. He’s also had to play more than the Canadiens would have liked, because–and stop me if you’ve heard this before–Antti Niemi as the backup has been a gas leak. He’s had one start in the past month, and you’d have to imagine they’re going to have to ride Price now to 65+ starts which can’t ever have been the plan.

That doesn’t mean they can’t be a headache on a given night, especially for a leaden-footed defense like the Hawks. The Bleu, Blanc, and Rouge have gotten on the popular train and now let their forwards streak up the ice, trying to get up into and around the opposing defense before the forwards can help out. The Hawks really struggle with this, so they’ll have to be as clean as possible tonight. That means no turnovers at either line, and busting it back. If the Hawks can keep the puck for any period of time, the Habs defense isn’t anything that would cause a sonnet to be written, and Price isn’t the set of iron bars he used to be. But open up a sliver to this team and they can turn it into a wound pretty quickly. And then Max Domi is smiling or Andrew Shaw is screaming or Brendan Gallagher is yapping and you’ll want to throw your shoe through the TV.

For the Hawks, wouldn’t expect any changes. Crawford is healthy and continent, so that’s three periods he gets to play. He usually plays pretty damn well back home in Montreal, and the Hawks will likely need it.

The Hawks already got a bonus two points out of this Canadian swing. But that doesn’t matter if you don’t get at least one, and really both, of the points out of here that you would have been aiming for before it began. There’s a long way to go, but it is possible as the Canucks and Flyers at home are next and then a home-and-home with a direct competitor in Colorado. It’s all in front of the Hawks for the next week. It’ll take almost all of the points there, if not all, but that’s the path they’ve chosen. If they’re serious about this, they’ll need every last drop before that last week gauntlet of Winnipeg, St. Louis, Dallas, and Nashville. These are two they probably need to get.

 

Game #71 Preview Suite

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Lineups & How Teams Were Built

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You can catch him a lot of places, so we recommend you just follow Andrew Berkshire @AndrewBerkshire and at his tumblr andrewberkshire.tumblr.com.

The Canadiens started out hot, but have cooled off of late. What fueled the former and what’s the cause of the latter?
Hot starts from everyone new really helped the Habs this year. Tomas Tatar has been amazing through two months of the season, and so has Max Domi to an even greater degree, at least offensively. Couple that with Jeff Petry and Brendan Gallagher starting off the season the same way they played last year and it’s a good recipe for success. Claude Julien was able to run four scoring lines of various quality early in the year before injuries began to hit, and the Canadiens have started to come back down to earth where their true talent level is of late.
Max Domi has 30 points in 28 games. Is it more than just the 19% shooting-percentage for the little turd?
The high shooting percentage is absolutely a huge part of it, but it seems like the Canadiens’ system is tailor made to make Domi look good this year. When the Canadiens play with speed and attack the offensive zone with control, Domi looks like an elite player, but when the Canadiens have trouble attacking off the rush, he’s much more neutralized.
Is this finally the Jonathan Drouin “awakening?”
For the first month of the season, Drouin was riding Domi’s coattails quite a lot, I thought he looked pretty lost and was constantly making junior hockey moves and getting caught. The last month he’s been playing what Pierre LeBrun would call ‘Big Boy hockey.” Whether it’s a permanent awakening for him is up for debate, but the effort level is there.
How do the Habs plan to turn over what is still a pretty hilarious blue line? Kids we should know about?
On the right side the blue line isn’t too bad, with Shea Weber and Jeff Petry leading the way and Noah Juulsen being the young kid that’s not known enough around the league for how good he is. The left side is an absolute mess, even more so now with Victor Mete losing the coach’s confidence and being sent to the AHL. Eventually Mete will establish himself as the team’s top left handed defenseman. Until then, there’s no one in the organization that’s immediately available to solve this.
How long did it take before you could spell “Kotkaniemi” without looking?
Surprisingly, it wasn’t that long. Niemi helped with the latter half, and then it was just Kotka, which is pretty simple to remember. It’s nowhere near as tough as Vasilevskiy, for example.

 

Game #31 Preview Suite

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