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Canadiens look for answers to power-play problems

by Arpon Basu / NHL.com

BROSSARD, Quebec – The Montreal Canadiens would appear to have all the tools necessary to have one of the most potent power plays in the NHL.

They have an excellent quarterback in defenseman Andrei Markov, a world-class trigger man in defenseman P.K. Subban, a disruptive net-front presence in Brendan Gallagher and one of the best shooting forwards in the NHL in Max Pacioretty.

But with this collection of talent at their disposal, the Canadiens have one of the worst power plays in the NHL. They enter their game Saturday against the Minnesota Wild (7 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, TVA, CITY, FS-N+) with a 7.9 percent success rate with the man-advantage.

"The power play needs to be a lot better," coach Michel Therrien said after practice Friday, during which the Canadiens spent a significant amount of time working on the power play. "We need to move the puck a lot quicker, we need to take better decisions. The power play needs to be a threat, and right now I'm not satisfied with the power play.

"We believe that we've got the personnel to be more successful. We just need to be better."

The Canadiens have scored three goals on 38 power-play attempts this season and are 0-for-25 on the road. Not only are they not scoring, they are not threatening to score.

According to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, the Canadiens have attempted 101 shots during their power plays this season, which ranks 13th in the NHL on the basis of shot attempts per 60 minutes of power-play time. However, when it comes to unblocked shot attempts, the Canadiens' rate drops to 23rd in the League; in terms of shots on goal per 60 minutes, Montreal ranks 25th.

Overall, of the Canadiens' 101 shot attempts on the power play, 44.6 percent have hit the net (45) and 33.6 percent were blocked (34).

One peculiarity to the Canadiens' power play this season has been that Subban has been starting shifts on the right point, eventually moving to the middle of the ice as Montreal sets up in a 1-3-1 formation with Markov sliding down to play along the half wall on the left side.

That formation largely eliminates one of the biggest weapons the Canadiens have: Subban's one-timer from the left point. Subban has been lethal from that spot in the past, but as teams began to cheat in order to take away that one-timer, the Canadiens have been unable to adjust and now appear to have taken away the threat entirely.

In theory, forcing teams to cheat to take away that Subban one-timer should create space for the other four players on the ice.

"I think it does [create space]," Subban said. "It's about exploiting that and making sure that we take advantage of it. We have to work harder as a five-man unit. We know that teams are going to take away myself and Andrei; they're not going to give us much space up top. We understand that. We know that every game it's a challenge for us to control the blue line and get pucks through. But that means that everybody else has got to work hard for when we do create space, to take advantage of it.

"We've got to start making teams pay in those situations where they want to play up high on us and try to take us away."

Opposing teams began making that adjustment around this time last season, and the Canadiens' power play has been in freefall ever since.

On Dec. 3, 2013, the Canadiens were 25-for-103 in 28 games on the power play, humming along at 24.3 percent as one of the top units in the NHL. From that point, the Canadiens scored 23 goals on 176 opportunities in their final 54 regular-season games, a success rate of 13.1 percent and two fewer goals than they scored in the first 28 games. Add in the difficult start to this season, and the Canadiens have converted 12.1 percent of their power-play chances in their past 68 regular-season games.

The lone time since that date nearly a year ago that the Canadiens' power play has worked was during their seven-game series against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Second Round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when they scored eight goals on 25 opportunities, a 32.0 percent success rate. Montreal's power play went a combined 4-for-36 (11.1 percent) against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round and the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final.

Some have pinned the power-play difficulties this season on the departure of assistant coach Gerard Gallant, who handled the power play along with assistant coach Clement Jodoin but is now the coach of the Florida Panthers. However, Gallant was around for the slide last season, and he put in place the formation being used by his successor, assistant coach Dan Lacroix.

Gallagher says it was not long after the drought began last December that the Canadiens began using the 1-3-1 formation they are using now, saying it is better than an overload setup because it makes all five players on the ice a threat to score.

But he's also cognizant that it's not working.

"I think our breakouts were good early on in the year, that wasn't the problem. It was more so in zone," Gallagher said. "Now it's flip-flopped. We're better in zone, but on our breakouts teams have adjusted and we haven't been able to make that counter adjustment."

Subban, for his part, does not feel the changed formation has stopped teams from cheating toward him and Markov on the blue line, and that there should be a significant amount of extra space for the Canadiens to exploit.

"Oh no, they still do [cheat]," Subban said. "I think the message to opposing teams' penalty killers from the coaching staff is, ‘Limit their time and space, take away their time and space. We don't care where they are, we don't want them to have time to make plays.'

"I think they're cheating. They're definitely favoring."

If that's the case, there should be an area where the Canadiens can attack: the weakened area of the ice the opposition is freeing to concentrate on Subban and Markov.

Subban believes he knows where it is.

"I think it's the middle of the ice; those soft areas [are] where you're going to have to catch teams," he said. "Something's got to open up. Especially when teams are running around like that, something's got to be open. It comes down to winning your battles and make sure you're creating space, and when you do win your battles making sure you make the right play to generate offense."

The Canadiens have been hearing questions about the struggles of their power play for the better part of a year, and they are eager for them to stop. They know there is only one way to make that happen.

"It's just a matter of executing. I've said it for a couple of weeks now," Gallagher said. "We've been talking about it and talking about it. As power-play guys we obviously want to end the questions by going out and scoring."

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