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Canadiens need to bring their best for stretch run

by Arpon Basu

BROSSARD, Quebec – The Montreal Canadiens came back from the All-Star break dealing with the same questions they faced when they left.

After their final game before the break on Jan. 20, a 2-1 overtime win against the Nashville Predators in which they were outshot by a healthy 37-27 margin, Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty suggested the possibility that his teammates may suffer from overconfidence playing in front of All-Star goaltender Carey Price.

When the Predators took a 1-0 lead in the second period of that game last week, they led 26-6 in shots, and Price was the only reason that game remained scoreless as long as it did.

In their first game back following the break Tuesday, the Canadiens defeated the Dallas Stars 3-2 while being outshot by a 42-26 margin. The difference, again, was Price.

This time, it is Canadiens forward Lars Eller wondering if maybe Price's brilliance has an impact on how his team plays in front of him.

Eller was asked after practice Wednesday if he is concerned with how Montreal has been playing lately. Eller said he wasn't because he's seen how good the Canadiens can be, particularly in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season when they reached the Eastern Conference Final before bowing out against their opponents Thursday, the New York Rangers (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, RDS, SNE, MSG).

"I think the reason I'm not worried is because I've seen this team play at our best, and we have seen how good we are when we do that, and I know we have that gear within here," Eller said. "When we are forced to bring it out, or we need to bring it out, we're going to bring it."

In the meantime, the Canadiens roll into New York with a 30-13-3 record while not bringing it, at least according to Eller. And the manner in which they've achieved that record is somewhat astonishing.

Prior to games Wednesday, the Canadiens were third in the NHL in goals allowed per game, one spot ahead of the Rangers. Yet they were the only team in the top eight in that category that had allowed more than 30 shots on goal per game and they were the only team in the top 15 with a negative shot differential.

In fact, there were only six teams in the League with a worse shot differential than the minus-3.1 per game of the Canadiens: Arizona Coyotes (minus-3.4), Toronto Maple Leafs (minus-4), Colorado Avalanche (minus-5.3), New Jersey Devils (minus-5.5), Columbus Blue Jackets (minus-5.8) and the Buffalo Sabres (minus-12).

So, Eller was asked, is a possible reason why the Canadiens aren't bringing it as consistently as he'd like because having Price in goal affords them the luxury of waiting?

Lars Eller
Center - MTL
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 15
SOG: 73 | +/-: -1
"It's wrong to say that or think that way," Eller said, "but maybe sometimes, yes."

So in the span of two games, albeit a week apart, that the Canadiens won while being severely outshot, two different players have suggested that perhaps Price's excellence has lulled them into some sort of false sense of security.

The danger now would be that bad habits are being created as a result.

Price is quick to shoot down the suggestions that he is solely responsible for the Canadiens' success to date. During All-Star Weekend, he dismissed talk of shot differentials and other such statistics as nitpicking about how the Canadiens are winning games.

The important thing, he said, is that they are winning.

This is, of course, true. The NHL standings do not award extra style points.

"We found a way to win, that's a positive," Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher said Wednesday of the game against Dallas. "I think another positive is that we can be better, we can find ways to improve. I think some of that is the transition game, limiting the amount of shots we're giving up and try not to make [Price] work so hard."

As the calendar turns toward February and with the final quarter of the season looming ahead, the Canadiens will need to bring it as Eller said they can. The race for playoff spots will heat up and the top teams will load up for a deep run in the spring.

If the Canadiens need to look back to what happened in the playoffs last spring for inspiration, so be it. But the time to flip that switch to "on" has arrived, because you never want to lean so heavily on a single player, even if that player is your goalie.

The Canadiens could also draw lessons on that reality by looking at what happened in last year's playoffs.

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