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Canadiens use time off to change power play

by Arpon Basu /

MONTREAL -- Being a hockey coach here is not always easy. In fact, it rarely is.

The Montreal Canadiens enter their game at the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday with a 26-12-3 record and have been at or near the top of the Eastern Conference standings for most of the season. Yet the Canadiens have been consistently poor on the power play, and in Montreal, that one glaring weakness tends to grab a lot of attention.

Coach Michel Therrien made some changes to the power play Monday and Tuesday at practice, in personnel and system. Considering the power play has been consistently unproductive for more than a calendar year without any significant adjustments, it was not surprising this became big news, even without an explanation from Therrien.

"I'm not going to start analyzing the changes," Therrien said. "First of all, as a coach, you want to keep those things private. We're in Montreal, we're a big market. Practices are getting analyzed on TV, and it's not fun for a coach. You want to make adjustments, and you're watching the news and people are trying to analyze the new strategy that you want to have. It can be tough at times. So I'm not going to start to elaborate on the changes."

The Canadiens power play has scored 13.7 percent of the time and has been near the bottom of the NHL all season. Going back to December 2013, it has been consistently inefficient, scoring on 13.6 percent of its 295 chances.

The Canadiens are 9-4-3 in one-goal games this season, which likely would be better with a power play performing at an average level. Prior to games Wednesday, the NHL average on the power play was 18.6 percent. The Canadiens would need six more goals on their 117 power-play chances to reach that percentage. No one knows how those six goals would be spread out over their 41 games played, but it's certainly possible they would have led to one or two more victories.

"We're obviously not happy with our performance on the power play," Canadiens center Tomas Plekanec said. "That's no secret. But we're at the halfway point of the season and we've got things to work on. The power play obviously is one of them. Maybe we'll be on the opposite side with the power play in the second half of the season."

The biggest change Therrien made is splitting the defense pair of P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, using four forwards with Subban on the first unit and pairing Markov with Sergei Gonchar on the second. The Canadiens are going to an umbrella formation with Subban or Gonchar on the top, a player on each half wall, one in the slot and one in front of the net.

PA Parenteau will be Subban's "defense" partner on the first unit, a position Parenteau played last season with the Colorado Avalanche, though in this case he will rarely be positioned as a defenseman except for faceoffs and breakouts.

"We've been too stand-still and too predictable of late," Parenteau said. "I think with that [umbrella] formation it gives us some more options. The plays are a little harder to make, but if we want to score goals we've got to make those passes through the box. I think we all can make them, we all made them at some point in our careers, it's just been a rough year on the power play."

Another issue with the power play has been the Canadiens' inability to enter the offensive zone, secure possession of the puck, and set up. The Canadiens prefer to strategically dump the puck to gain the opposing blue line, but it often appears the forwards are not sure where the puck is going when they enter the zone.

"The problem is when we chip those pucks we have only one guy going in or two guys, but we need all three guys," Plekanec said. "We need to outwork, we need to outnumber the opposition in the corners. That's where we have a problem because we have only one guy or two guys, and the [penalty kill] has two guys or even three guys and we're losing the battle. So we need guys supporting each other and then setting up."

Therrien refused to admit that zone entries have been a long-term issue, preferring to say it was a glaring problem only in the Canadiens' 2-1 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.

But the coach had an interesting analogy to describe what is going on with the power play, comparing it to someone driving from Montreal to Quebec City. He said there are two major highways you can take, Highway 40 and Highway 20, so if he hears on the radio there is a major accident on Highway 20 then he should decide to take Highway 40.

"It's the same thing in hockey," Therrien said. "You've got different patterns, but you have to read the play. And we have to let the players make those reads and make good decisions with the puck."

Asked if the problem is that some of the players are taking Highway 40 and others are getting stuck with the accident on Highway 20, Therrien smiled and said, "At times."

Starting the second half of the season with major changes implemented, the Canadiens are hopeful they are all looking at the same map for the first time in more than a year.

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