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Canadiens offense has run dry over past month

by Arpon Basu

Michel Therrien listened to the question and laughed.

When the Montreal Canadiens' coach was asked following a 3-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at home Tuesday whether his team's offensive issues run deeper than what was shown that night, Therrien pointed to the outrageous number of pucks the Canadiens threw toward the Sabres' net.

Facing the worst possession team in the NHL by far, one desperately trying to hold on to a one-goal lead in order to end a franchise-record 14-game losing streak, the Canadiens did throw a ton of rubber in the general direction of the Sabres' goal.

Of the 92 shots the Canadiens attempted, 34 hit the net, 32 were stopped by Sabres goaltender Jhonas Enroth, 35 were blocked by Enroth's teammates, and 23 missed the net.

It was an impressive display against a desperate opponent, but it was not indicative of how the Canadiens have played offensively of late.

In fact, it was essentially the opposite of what the Canadiens have been doing this calendar year.

The loss to the Sabres was the Canadiens' second in a row, the first time since Dec. 6 they lost consecutive games in regulation. A two-game losing streak should never be cause for alarm, but when it comes at home against the Arizona Coyotes and Sabres, the 27th- and 30th teams in the overall NHL standings, red flags begin to go up.

"We need a contribution from more than one or two lines," Therrien said after the game, "which is what we've had for the last month and a half."

The Canadiens have played 11 games since Jan. 6 and have scored more than two goals in three of them. Their record in the 11 games is 6-4-1, largely because goaltender Carey Price is allowing even fewer goals than his teammates are scoring. In Price's eight starts in that span he allowed 14 goals on 246 shots, a save percentage of .943. The Canadiens scored 15 goals in those eight games and won five of them.

"The puck's eventually going to go in," forward Max Pacioretty said. "It's frustrating right now. It seems like there's bad bounces here and there, but at the same time we've just got to work harder. You create your own luck with hard work."

There may have been bad bounces Tuesday, but a look at the Canadiens' offensive numbers suggests there has been a drop in offensive opportunities starting with their 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Jan. 6.

According to war-on-ice.com, the Canadiens' Corsi percentage (shots attempted) for the season prior to that game against the Lightning was 49 percent, and their Fenwick percentage (unblocked shot attempts) was 49.2 percent at even strength. They were averaging 26.3 scoring chances per 60 minutes played at 5-on-5.

In the 10 following games, not including the possession outlier against the Sabres, the Canadiens' Corsi dropped to 46.4 percent, their Fenwick to 45.7, and their scoring-chance rate to 23.5 per 60 minutes at even strength.

Not only are the Canadiens shooting less often, but fewer of those shots are going in the net.

On Jan. 5, the Canadiens had an even-strength shooting percentage of 9.0 percent, fifth-best in the NHL. In the next 10 games it was 6.7 percent, eighth-worst in the NHL during that span.

"We'd like to score more goals, obviously," third-line center Lars Eller said. "I think we have one line here and there that's hot one game, next game it's another line. Mostly it's been the first two. But the bottom line is most of the time we've been finding ways to win games, even though we haven't been scoring a lot, and that's a good thing."

Though the Canadiens were finding ways to win those games, the process didn't appear to matter much. Montreal was outshot in seven of the 10 games between Jan. 6 and Sunday, and the average margin by which it was outshot in those seven games was 10.9. But the focus then was on the result.

"We put a lot of traffic in front of the net tonight," Therrien said after the loss to Buffalo, after initially laughing when asked if the Canadiens are facing some issues offensively. "We threw a lot of pucks at the net and they blocked a lot of shots. I don't think it was a lack of effort."

Suddenly, process became a priority again, and justly so.

If the Canadiens play the way they did over the final 40 minutes of the loss to Buffalo, they should score more goals and win more games without having to rely on the brilliance of Price to make the difference every night. The question is whether they can do that when facing stiffer opposition, something the Canadiens have not shown an ability to do on a consistent basis all season.

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