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Analysis: Canadiens' problems bigger than no Price

by Arpon Basu

Everything was supposed to be all right.

The Montreal Canadiens got forward Brendan Gallagher back from an injury and trounced their biggest rivals on the NHL's biggest regular-season stage.

It was, if you were to believe the words being spoken in the Canadiens dressing room after their 5-1 victory against the Boston Bruins in the Bridgestone 2016 NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1, a potential turning point to what had been the very epitome of an up-and-down season.

Except with the Bruins coming to town to face the Canadiens on Tuesday at Bell Centre in a Winter Classic rematch (7:30 p.m. ET; NESN, RDS, SNE), everything is not all right in Montreal.

Far from it.

The Canadiens have lost four games in a row and five of their past six since that supposed season-turning victory at Gillette Stadium on New Year's Day.

The downward part of their up-and-down season has continued.

It is easy for observers to look at the extended absence of goaltender Carey Price, the reigning Hart and Vezina Trophy winner, as the primary reason why the Canadiens have struggled. Price has played 12 games this season and the Canadiens are 10-2-0 in those games. They are 13-17-4 in the other 34 games they have played in front of three goaltenders, rookie Mike Condon, Ben Scrivens and the since-traded Dustin Tokarski.

Price is expected back at some point after the All-Star break from the lower-body injury that has kept him out of action since Nov. 25, and he has been skating without equipment for the past week.

So once Price comes back, then everything will be all right? Right?

It's not that simple.

The dilemma facing the Canadiens coaching staff led by Michel Therrien, and their management led by general manager Marc Bergevin, is that the team is not scoring goals, a problem that won't be helped by Price's return, and one that predates the start of the current season.

On top of that, despite the Canadiens going on a six-week stretch of utter futility, they are not exactly playing horrible hockey.

A perfect example of that came Saturday when they visited the St. Louis Blues and outshot them 49-22 but lost 4-3 in overtime. It was simply an exaggerated version of what's been happening to the Canadiens since Dec. 2, when they had an 11-point lead atop the Atlantic Division standings with a 19-4-3 record. They have gone 4-15-1 since, by far the worst record in the NHL over that span, despite outshooting their opponents in 14 of those 20 games.

Carey Price
Goalie - MTL
RECORD: 10-2-0
GAA: 2.06 | SVP: .934
The slide began with a 3-2 loss on Dec. 3 to the Washington Capitals, a game the Canadiens dominated to the tune of a 35-19 advantage in shots on goal. On Dec. 17, at home to the Los Angeles Kings, the Canadiens won the shots on goal battle 45-20 and lost 3-0. One game before their dominant performance in St. Louis, the Canadiens outshot the mighty Chicago Blackhawks 40-33 last Thursday at home and lost 2-1.

Therrien took a lot of heat for saying on Dec. 26 that the Canadiens had played better in going 1-9-0 in their previous 10 games since Dec. 2 than they had in starting the season 9-0-0. He later explained the day before the Winter Classic that he was referring to a number of internally tracked metrics in making that determination, including increased possession time and a scoring chance differential that had doubled in comparison to the start of the season.

Though Canadiens fans were outraged their coach could actually believe a 1-9-0 team was playing better than one that went 9-0-0, Therrien was not blowing hot air.

Up until Dec. 2 (all stats are at even strength, score adjusted and courtesy of the Canadiens were fourth in the NHL with a shot attempt percentage (SAT) of 53.5 percent and 13th with a 50.1 scoring chance percentage. Since Dec. 2, the Canadiens are fourth with a 53.3 SAT percentage and 15th with a 50.1 scoring chance percentage.

So really, nothing has changed when it comes to those specific metrics. Except a team that rode those numbers to a 19-4-3 record is now running at 4-15-1 with the same numbers.

The big difference is that up until Dec. 2 the Canadiens were scoring on 8.3 percent of their shots on goal and stopping 93.8 percent of their shots against at even strength. Since Dec. 2, the Canadiens are shooting at 5.3 percent efficiency and stopping 90.4 percent of their shots against, numbers that are respectively 29th and 30th in the NHL over that span.

The Canadiens were saying back in December that if they kept playing the same way, eventually the results would come. In theory, they were right.

Except the results haven't come.

It's a riddle Bergevin will need to de-code before the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 29. How does he properly evaluate his team or his coaching staff without the services of his best player, who won't be back before Feb. 2, and perhaps later than that? How does he decide whether or not to spend future assets to bring in some help at the end of February when the contrast between how the Canadiens are playing and the results they are getting is so great?

Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban mentioned numerous times before training camp even began in September that it would be up to the players to force Bergevin to be aggressive at the trade deadline to make a run for the Stanley Cup.

The Canadiens still have time to do that, to make their general manager feel optimistic about his team, but it will have to start Tuesday against the Bruins.

Because time is starting to run out.

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