When James Wisniewski left last night’s game with a puck to the face, it began anew something Habs fans have become all too accustomed to this season – watching a defenseman leave the game with an injury severe enough to force them to miss the rest of the game, if not more. That “The Wiz” left the game so soon in the first period left the Canadiens shorthanded for the majority of the game, and forced Jacques Martin to overplay Subban (29:29 TOI), Hamrlik (27:36), Weber (27:38), and Picard (23:23). How many ways can you spell fatigue?
From those stats, it would be easy to pin the loss to the Oilers – the league’s worst team – on the hobbled defense. But you’d be wrong. You’d be trotting out a convenient excuse and sweeping the loss under the rug. If you think the Canadiens have it bad on defense, wait until they visit Vancouver on Tuesday next week. The storyline in that game will be all about the combined losses on the blueline for both teams. In case you’re wondering what I’m talking about – the Canucks are missing SIX defensemen. Yet they continue to pile up wins, and continue to run away with the Western Conference. There’s no convenient excuses coming out of their camp – they just get it done. “Yeah but, yeah but, yeah but”. I can hear it now, but I’m not listening. Not as it applies to last night. Besides, the Canadiens have no room to bitch about injuries. Take a look at this article which, although a month old, highlights the man-games lost due to injury this season. The Canadiens fare quite well, even if they have probably climbed a few rungs over the past month. The point is every teams have injuries, and many teams have had it worse than the Habs.
Last night’s loss to the Oilers had nothing to do with defense. It was due to a lack of finish around the net. The Canadiens threw 36 shots at Nikolai Khabibulin, many of them from prime scoring areas. Admittedly, I missed a lot of those chances, but what I didn’t see was an Oilers team that dominated the Canadiens for 60 minutes. Sure, they were better than the Habs in the first period, and only came out of it with a 1-0 lead. The Canadiens pressed hard in the second and by all rights should have buried three behind Khabibulin. A team with finish would have, hence the Oilers poor defenseive record, and rock-bottom place in the standings. Hot goalie beat the Habs? Funny, I’ve heard that before many times. Why do the Habs seem to have such a knack for making opposing goalies look like Vezina contenders?
But all that aside, last night’s loss is about more than just last night. Prior to the start of the season, I had pegged the Habs finishing no better than 7th or 8th in the Eastern Conference, so I don’t think I have outrageous expectations for them. That they currently sit in 6th ought to be enough to excuse last night’s loss, right? Chill out, as our all-star goalie would say? After all, Khabibulin was terrific, and the defense is injured, right? Wrong. Sorry, I’m not buying it.
The Canadiens have recently blown leads at home to the mighty Islanders, and Sabres. Need I remind you that in the game against the Islanders, the visitors had Mikko Koskinen in goal – he of 1 whole game of NHL experience – in which the firewagon Maple Leafs lit him up for five goals? Need I also remind you that the Sabres came to town and finally decided to rest Ryan Miller, opting to give Jhonas Enroth his 7th NHL start? Again, the Habs proceded to make him look like a Dominik Hasek. Of course, I would be remiss not to mention that the Canadiens also blew a home game to the very same Oilers earlier this season – another game in which they led, only to lose in extra time. The silver lining, if there is any, is that in all three of the games that I’ve mentioned, the Habs managed to get a point for taking the game to overtime or shootout. So it’s not all doom and gloom. But you can’t look me in the eye and tell me with a straight face that it’s all well and good to leave points on the table against teams that are way below the Habs in the standings. If they had taken care of business in those 3 games, they’d have an extra three points in the standings and would 3rd in the Conference, a.k.a home ice advantage if the playoffs started today.
If you can tell me that it’s peachy that the Habs were swept by the Oilers in their 2 meetings this season (taking 1 out of four points in the process), then I’d like to purchase some land in your fantasy world. Against non-playoff teams in the East, the Canadiens are 12-11 overall (12-7-2-2), but thanks to the free point for overtime and shootout losses, the Canadiens are lucky enough to have 4 extra points in the bank. Thanks goodness for small blessings. Against non-playoff teams in the West, the Habs are 1-3-1, for a total record of 13-10-3-2. In other words, they’ve lost more games than they’ve won against the teams in the league not strong enough to make the playoffs. I’ll save you the trouble of pointing out the flip side, which must be that if they Canadiens have a good record overall, and a bad record against bad teams, then they must have a good record against good teams. Yes, that’s true, and since only good teams make the playoffs, you may see it as a positive sign, especially after what happened last spring. But just close your eyes for a moment and imagine what the Canadiens would be like if they were able to more consistently beat the teams that they ought to beat. Maybe we would be talking about an elite team.
The reality is that when you throw away points against bottom-feeders, you have to make them up somewhere else in the schedule, or resign yourself to being another playoff Cinderella.
I know that the Canadiens aren’t an elite team, and I know that as they sit in 6th place today, they have overachieved (thanks, Carey!). Despite what you may think, I don’t expect them to win 82 games by blowout. Like I said earlier, I don’t expect the Canadiens to finish any higher than 7th in the conference, but it is insane to hope that they can? Or hope that they may? I don’t think it is, especially when they continually find themselves in a position to lift themselves up and defy the prognostications, only to slip on the banana peel. Self-inflicted wounds against teams that have been out of the playoff race since Halloween.
So that’s what irks me about last night’s loss. It’s not to be looked at in a vacuum. It’s a gathering snowball of lost points to teams they ought to beat. Losing games is acceptable. The 4-2 loss to Detroit was nothing to be ashamed about. Defeats against the Capitals, Flyers are Bruins are also tolerable, although they can be bitter pills to swallow. Even blowing a game at home to the Lightning can be chalked up to a sitting back against a team stacked with firepower.
Last night’s loss won’t destroy the Canadiens’ hopes of making the playoffs. But with upcoming games against the red-hot Flames, and the Canucks, we could soon be looking at a team that has lost 7 of 8 games, and be back on the playoff bubble. Which is pretty much where I had them pegged, so I guess I should be happy right? After all, Habs fans often prefer to be correct than see the Habs prevail, right? In this case, I’d love to see the Canadiens poke holes in my prediction. Considering how close they are to doing just that, seeing them sabotage themselves makes it all the more frustrating.