Stu’s Slapshots: Inconsistency and injuries prove costly for Canadiens

There’s room for improvement everywhere as Habs head into second half of season with 17-18-6 record and only eight wins in regulation time.

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That’s the best word to describe the first half of the Canadiens’ season as they posted a 17-18-6 record.

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The Canadiens never won more than two games in a row during the first 41 games. They never lost more than four in a row, which is an improvement from last season when they had one seven-game winless streak in the first half (0-6-1) and then another in the second half (0-5-2).

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In the second full season of a rebuild, the Canadiens are five points ahead of their pace from last season when they had a 16-22-3 record at the midway point. For the second straight season, injuries have hit them hard and made it difficult to get a read on exactly where they are in the rebuilding process.

The Canadiens completed the first half of the schedule Thursday night by losing 3-2 to the San Jose Sharks — the worst team in the NHL — at the Bell Centre. Montreal looked like the worst team in the league when they were outshot 17-9 by the Sharks in the second period, but they have looked great in other games.

The Winnipeg Jets are the best team in the NHL with a 28-9-4 record, but the Canadiens have beaten them twice — 4-3 in a shootout at the Bell Centre and 3-2 in overtime in Winnipeg. The Canadiens also beat the Boston Bruins, who are third in the overall standings, 3-2 in overtime at the Bell Centre before getting blown out 5-2 in Boston.

The Canadiens have been better on the road (9-7-4) than at home (8-11-2) and they sit in 25th place in the overall NHL standings. Only eight of their victories have come in regulation time.

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The Canadiens are seven points out of a wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but after Thursday’s loss their odds of making the playoffs were listed at 1.1 per cent by the website, which seems about right.

Losing forward Kirby Dach for the season when he tore the MCL and ACL ligaments in his right knee during the second game was a huge blow. That was followed by long-term injuries to defenceman David Savard (he missed 22 games with fractured hand), Jordan Harris (15 games with a lower-body injury) and forward Rafaël Harvey-Pinard (27 games with a lower-body injury). Savard, Harris and Harvey-Pinard have returned to the lineup and are healthy to start the second half of the season. But Alex Newhook (ankle) and Tanner Pearson (upper body) remain sidelined after already missing 18 and 14 games, respectively, while fellow forward Christian Dvorak is done for the season after having surgery last Friday to repair a torn pectoral muscle.

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Head coach Martin St. Louis didn’t want to use the injuries as an excuse after Thursday’s loss to the Sharks.

“I definitely push that aside,” he said. “I’ve seen this group go through a big stretch here of playing the game and I feel we’ve gotten away a little bit from playing the game. We’ll get back at playing the game.”

St. Louis loves to use the term the game — meaning the way he wants his team to play.

The coach added things need to tighten up in the defensive zone and execution needs to be better all over the ice. Those problems were on full display against the Sharks.

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“I’ve said it before, we’re chasing consistency,” St. Louis said. “To me, what’s next for this group is how consistent can we be in the details of the game. There’s a lot that has to go into a win. If you just in your mind say: ‘Got to win, got to win’ — no, you got to focus on the process in what it takes to win. That still doesn’t guarantee you a win because you still need to put the puck in the net and be opportunistic on your chances. You still need to get some saves. But, to me, it’s consistently doing the things that helps you winning — and that’s not just scoring goals.”

More goals, please

Scoring more goals would certainly help the Canadiens, especially by the forwards.

Montreal has 31 goals from their defencemen, led by Mike Matheson and Justin Barron with six each. The only team with more goals from their blueliners is the Colorado Avalanche with 33, led by Cale Makar with nine.

Nick Suzuki leads the Canadiens with 13 goals, which has him tied for 74th in the NHL.

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After scoring 26 goals in 46 games last season before suffering a shoulder injury that required surgery, Cole Caufield has 11 goals after 41 games this season, which has him tied for 105th in the NHL. Caufield’s shooting percentage last season was 16.5 per cent and this season it’s 7.5 per cent. He ranks 13th in the NHL this season with 147 shots.

The Canadiens rank 28th in the NHL in offence, scoring an average of 2.71 goals per game. But scoring goals isn’t the only part of the game where they’re struggling. In fact, there’s room for improvement everywhere.

They rank 24th in defence (allowing an average of 3.39 goals per game), 22nd on the power play (17.7 per cent), 28th in penalty-killing (73 per cent), 27th in shots (28.5 per game), 29th in shots against (33.6 per game) and 25th in goal differential (minus-28).

On the bright side, they rank fourth in faceoffs, winning 53.8 per cent.

Coaching St. Louis wasn’t easy

John Tortorella coached St. Louis for seven seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning and they won the Stanley Cup together in 2004.

That’s the same season St. Louis won the Hart Trophy as league MVP and the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer with 38-56-94 totals while playing in all 82 games.

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Tortorella, now in his second season as head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, called St. Louis one of the greatest competitors he has ever coached. But he added St. Louis wasn’t easy to coach because he constantly asked questions.

“Every shift, there was a question,” Tortorella told reporters in Philadelphia before the Flyers beat the Canadiens 3-2 in a shootout Wednesday night. “He made me a better coach because you have to be on your toes with him. You can’t leave anything for chance and you have to be ready because he’s analyzing all the time.

“He drove me nuts with all the questions in practice and during the game,” Tortorella added. “It was like one-on-one all the time. But that’s why he was such a great player.”

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

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The two remain close friends and Tortorella said he is now learning some new things about coaching from St. Louis.

“He’s got a brilliant mind and a mind that thinks out of the box,” Tortorella told reporters in Philadelphia. “I’ve listened to him talk about some of his things — we talked a little bit in the summertime — and I wouldn’t even know how to teach some of the things (he does). When he explains it to me it kind of goes right over my head and I have to ask questions. So I’ve learned from him.

“I don’t think there’s many secrets in the game — I just don’t think there is,” Tortorella added. “But how you teach and the language you use, that’s always intriguing to me and he’s a very bright person. I’m happy for him. We’ve had a long history together.”

Blast from the past

Speaking of coaches, Wednesday marked the 18th anniversary of Michel Therrien’s epic rant when he was coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins and they suffered their third straight loss, losing 3-1 to the Edmonton Oilers.

Therrien had been coaching the Penguins for a month after taking over from Ed Olczyk and it was two seasons after he had been fired from his first of two stints as head coach of the Canadiens. Therrien was in his third season coaching the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL when the Penguins promoted him.

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The loss to the Oilers 18 years ago dropped the Penguins’ season record to 11-22-9 and Therrien blew a gasket.

His unforgettable rant is worth watching again in the video below. Ryan Whitney, who was part of that Penguins team, certainly hasn’t forgotten it.

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Red-hot Oilers come to town

The Canadiens will face a tough challenge when they start the second half of the season Saturday at the Bell Centre against the Oilers (7 p.m., CBC, SN1, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM).

The Oilers are coming off a 3-2 overtime win over the Red Wings Thursday night in Detroit and have tied a team record with nine straight victories. The Oilers have outscored the opposition 38-16 during that span and Connor McDavid has points in all nine games, posting 5-10-15 totals.

Suzuki leads the Canadiens with 12-22-34 totals, which has him tied for 63rd in the NHL. The Oilers have five players with more points than Suzuki: McDavid (16-40-56), Leon Draisaitl (19-24-43), Zach Hyman (26-16-42), Evan Bouchard (9-30-39) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (11-27-38).

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The Oilers fired head coach Jay Woodcroft after they got off to a 3-9-1 start this season and replaced him with Kris Knoblauch, who was McDavid’s junior coach for three seasons with the OHL’s Erie Otters. McDavid had 44-76-120 totals in 47 games with the Otters in 2014-15 before being selected by the Oilers with the No. 1 overall pick at the 2015 NHL Draft.

Since Knoblauch took over, the Oilers have a 19-6-0 record and they hold the second wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference with a 22-15-1 record.

In 23 career games against the Canadiens, McDavid has 8-21-29 totals, while Draisaitl has 11-19-30 totals in 24 career games against Montreal.

Saturday is also McDavid’s 27th birthday.

Homecoming for Drouin

Jonathan Drouin will play his first game at the Bell Centre as a member of the Avalanche on Monday (7 p.m., SN, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM).

After six disappointing and injury-riddled seasons with the Canadiens, Drouin seems to have found his game in Colorado while reunited with his old junior teammate Nathan MacKinnon. The QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads won the Memorial Cup in 2013 after Drouin led the team in the regular season with 41-64-105 totals in 49 games, while MacKinnon had 32-43-75 totals in 44 games.

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Drouin has 9-13-22 totals in 40 games with the Avalanche this season and is minus-2 after posting 2-27-29 totals in 58 games last season with the Canadiens to go along with a minus-18. Drouin has only been held off the scoresheet three times in the last 14 games with the Avalanche, posting 6-8-14 totals during that span. He has been playing on the top line with Mackinnon and Mikko Rantanen as well as on the first power-play unit.

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After having an annual salary-cap hit of US$5.5 million during his six seasons with the Canadiens, Drouin signed a one-year, US$825,000 deal with the Avalanche last summer as a free agent.

“I can’t wait to come back and have dinner with some Canadiens players,” Drouin told Jean-Charles Lavoie of TVA Sports on Thursday about returning to Montreal. “And my family will come watch the game. It’s going to be special. You tell yourself that it’s a game like any other, but that’s not the case. I’ve been looking at the date since November.”

The pressure of being a French-Quebecer playing in Montreal under a very bright spotlight took a toll on Drouin. The Ste-Agathe native missed the last 12 games of the 2020-21 regular season and the Canadiens’ entire run to the Stanley Cup final while dealing with anxiety and insomnia issues that, at times, would see him go three nights in a row without sleep. He also had injury problems, including surgery on both wrists.

“It’s hard to put just one thing down, but there was a time when I was afraid of making mistakes,” Drouin told Lavoie about his struggles in Montreal. “I wasn’t comfortable with my game and I was thinking about too many things. In my first game, I thought I was ready, but that wasn’t the case. It took me years to understand (the pressure). But I think in the last two years, Martin St. Louis helped me a lot with all that, to just play hockey and not think about what people thought of me.”

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It will be interesting to see what kind of reaction Drouin gets from the Bell Centre fans.

Hopefully, it will be a warm one.

Pacioretty shoots and scores

It was nice to see former Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty score his first goal as a member of the Washington Capitals in a 4-1 loss to the Seattle Kraken on Thursday.

It was Pacioretty’s first goal since Jan. 10 last year with the Carolina Hurricanes before he tore his right Achilles tendon for the second time in less than a year. Last summer, the Capitals signed the 35-year-old Pacioretty to a one-year, US$2-million contract that has an additional US$2 million in performance-based incentives.

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“It felt good,” Pacioretty told reporters in Washington after scoring the 327th goal of his career in his fourth game with the Capitals. “It felt better to have a little bit of confidence and poise with the puck and tonight was the first night where I felt like I was able to make some plays. I know it’s not enough because we didn’t win the game, but I’m just looking to get better every game and I’ve done that so far.”

Pacioretty can look forward to a homecoming game against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre on Feb. 17.

Ovechkin slowing down

It looks like age is catching up with the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin.

The 38-year-old has only eight goals in 39 games this season after scoring 42 goals last season and 50 the season before. With 830 career goals, Ovechkin is 64 behind the NHL record 894 goals scored by Wayne Gretzky.

Meanwhile, age hasn’t caught up with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, who has 24-19-43 totals in 40 games at age 36.

His stick-handling skills remain elite, as shown in the video below.

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Senators really struggling

While a coaching change worked in Edmonton, it hasn’t helped in Ottawa.

The Senators suffered their fifth straight loss Thursday night, dropping a 5-3 decision to the Sabres in Buffalo.

Ottawa is in last place in the Atlantic Division with a 14-23-0 record, 12 points behind the Canadiens with four games in hand. The Senators have a 3-8-0 record since former Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin took over behind the bench from D.J. Smith.

The video below from the Senators’ loge in Buffalo on Thursday night sums up this season under new owner Michael Andlauer, who purchased the franchise last September for US$950 million.

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Andlauer, a self-made billionaire who grew up in Montreal, had to sell his 10-per-cent ownership share in the Canadiens back to Geoff Molson and his group before purchasing the Senators.

After Thursday’s loss in Buffalo, had the Senators’ chances of making the playoffs listed at 0.4 per cent.

Stanley Cups damaged

The Canadiens have 24 miniature Stanley Cups on display on shelves behind glass on a wall outside their locker room at the Bell Centre — one for each championship in franchise history.

Kelly Greig, a reporter for CTV News and TSN in Montreal, reported ahead of Thursday night’s game against the Sharks that one of the Cups was missing because it was damaged during Tuesday night’s Travis Scott rap concert at the Bell Centre.

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Apparently, the rapper’s bass sound was so loud that it caused three of the miniature Stanley Cups to fall during his concert and the one from 1923-24 was damaged and had to be sent out for repairs.

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