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Canadiens believe style of play will help them win

by Arpon Basu

BROSSARD, Quebec -- The Montreal Canadiens play in a market that can be hard on its team, to put it mildly.

The Canadiens have gonte 1-3-2 and scored eight goals in their past six games heading into their game at the New York Islanders on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, City), but it remains a game between two teams fighting for first place in the NHL standings.

Every possible metric that can be used to measure the quality of a team, whether they are traditional statistics or newer analytics, shows the Canadiens to be flawed. Shots-for and shots-against, scoring chances-for and -against, shot-attempt percentage, unblocked shot-attempt percentage; pretty much any number you can find other than those representing the goaltending of Carey Price would suggest the Canadiens have no business fighting for the top record in the League.

Yet here they are, and this is not a one-shot deal.

The only Eastern Conference team that has more than the 117 regular-season wins the Canadiens have under coach Michel Therrien since 2012-13 is the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Montreal is tied with the Boston Bruins for fifth behind the Anaheim Ducks (126 wins), Penguins (126), St. Louis Blues (124) and Chicago Blackhawks (122).

Yet Therrien and his style come under attack whenever the Canadiens hit a bump in the road, like they have now.

The Canadiens hit a similar slump at nearly the exact same point last season, but this is a very different team, with 12 players on the roster who were there at this point last season. They came out of that slump to finish last season 11-3-1; now this group must show it is able to do the same thing.

Therrien said after practice Friday he welcomes the challenge and has no doubt this group can meet it, but it needs to deal with the unique wrinkle of doing it in the Montreal fishbowl.

"Sometimes we'll have success, or a player will have success, and they will put you up there [on a pedestal]. When things don't go your way they're going to put you right there," Therrien said, pointing toward the floor. "There's a balance. We have to find that balance. I don't see any problem with fighting adversity at times because it makes you realize as a team that to be successful, the No. 1 thing is attitude and competing. That's the No. 1 thing."

The Canadiens have had trouble scoring goals all season but it's never been quite this bad. The recent drought has brought their puck-possession problems to the forefront, and a lot of that stems from the way they play.

The Canadiens play a chip-and-chase style with the added threat of long passes to stretch opposing defenses in the neutral zone. Neither of those strategies leads to strong possession numbers, and none of it is going to change at this point.

Practice on Friday was focused heavily on offensive-zone entries and refining that chip-and-chase game rather than eradicating it.

"I pointed to that practice a long time ago to work on some different things, to make sure we're going to be comfortable in about a month," Therrien said. "But regarding systems and stuff like that, we're not changing [anything]. I don't think any teams, at this time of year, they start changing anything regarding the way that they play."

Therrien's players wouldn't want him to.

Defenseman P.K. Subban is the Canadiens' most important player when it comes to puck possession. When he and defense partner Andrei Markov are on the ice, the puck usually is in the offensive zone.

But when asked Friday if the Canadiens should alter their system in order to create more offense, to try to move away from a chip-and-chase game, Subban rejected the idea.

"When we won 14 of 16 games about a month ago [the Canadiens went 15-3-1 from Dec. 9 to Jan. 31], we were playing the same way but we were getting those pucks," he said. "So it's about winning battles, it's not about Xs and Os. I think it comes down to execution and winning battles. That's the difference right now."

There is a growing belief, with studies to support it, that chipping pucks out of your end or into the offensive end is not efficient, that it results in a turnover more often than not. Subban said he believes the Canadiens do it well enough to make it more efficient than it would be for other teams.

"It's called puck placement," Subban said. "I think if you're just giving it back to the other team that's not what you want to do. You want to chip to support, chip to a guy skating or put it in a spot where, we have a fast team, it's a foot race. I like our chances in those battles."

Therrien said after the Canadiens' 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Thursday that offense was not the problem in that game, even though it stretched a streak without an even-strength goal against a goalie to 146:15.

Forward Lars Eller was the last Canadiens player to score against a goalie at even strength, in the second period of a 2-0 win at the Arizona Coyotes on March 7 (Brendan Gallagher scored an even-strength empty-net goal with two seconds remaining in regulation). But he agreed with the general premise of his coach, that a lot of the Canadiens' issues with zone entries would be remedied with better play in the defensive end.

"If we could carry it in [the offensive zone], we would carry it in," Eller said. "We are a fast team, we're fast skaters. But it starts way before that. Before we can do those other things it starts with the plays without the puck before we get it back. We have to do those things right to create space to skate it in. If we're dead tired chasing the puck for 45 seconds we won't have gas to skate it out and skate it in.

"If we play a little better defense we'll get better offense."

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