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Analysis: Canadiens' woes go beyond Price's absence

Montreal lacked scoring consistency, was plagued with injuries in 2015-16

by Arpon Basu @arponbasu / Managing Editor

MONTREAL -- It would be easy for the Montreal Canadiens to dismiss the 2015-16 season as an anomaly, one ruined by the loss of star goaltender Carey Price for all but 12 games.

The Canadiens won 10 of the games Price played and 26 of the 68 games he didn't heading into their game Thursday at the Carolina Hurricanes (7 p.m. ET; FS-CR, RDS, SNE, NHL.TV), making it somewhat obvious why they will miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in nine seasons.

They entered the season hoping to prove they could win without Price performing the nightly miracles he did in 2014-15, earning him the Hart and Vezina Trophy.

But it's one thing for the Canadiens to prove they don't solely rely on Price when he's there, it's quite another when he isn't. And Montreal's rapid descent down the standings from first overall on Dec. 2 to where they find themselves today provided fodder to everyone who said the Canadiens were nothing without Price.

However, the reason for the slide is not that simple to explain.

In order to fully understand what happened, the season needs to be split into three distinct sections.

Video: Price on his injury

There were the 23 games Montreal played up until Price was lost for the season Nov. 25 with a sprained MCL in his right knee, the 10 games the Canadiens played after that up before a 6-2 loss at the Dallas Stars on Dec. 19, and then everything that came afterward.

Price missed nine of the first 23 games with a knee injury he sustained at the Edmonton Oilers on Oct. 29, one the Canadiens said is not related to the knee injury that ultimately ended his season. Yet the Canadiens barely missed a beat behind goalie Mike Condon, going 5-2-2 in Price's absence.

In going 17-4-2 over that initial 23-game span, the Canadiens went from one of the worst possession teams in the NHL a season ago to one of the best, sitting eighth in the League in shot attempt percentage (SAT) when Price was injured.

Everything was humming along at an elite level. The power play was ranked third, the penalty kill was second, the Canadiens were first in both goals and shots on goal, and had allowed the sixth-fewest goals in the NHL.

"We track a lot of stuff," captain Max Pacioretty said Wednesday. "We track scoring chances, we track possession. Obviously this game isn't all about numbers and analytics, but we cleaned up a lot of our game that we felt we had to address this year because we felt we did rely on Carey too much last year. But we came in this year and we played the right way, and we had some great momentum and felt we addressed all the issues we did have last year and that we were a better team this year."

Video: DET@MTL: Pacioretty deflects home opening goal

The Canadiens continued doing a lot of the things that made them successful once Price was injured. Over the next 10 games, from Nov. 26 to Dec. 19, Montreal ranked third in the League in SAT percentage, fifth in shots on goal and allowed the fourth-fewest shots against over that span.

Except the Canadiens went 3-6-1 in those games, largely because their 5-on-5 shooting percentage plummeted from sixth in the NHL to 26th over that span and the power play went from third to 28th. Montreal was doing everything right except the most important part -- score. Their 17 goals over those three weeks were last in the NHL, despite taking the fifth-most shots on goal and having the third-highest SAT percentage. 

Couple that with a team 5-on-5 save percentage that went from ninth in the League to 30th over that 10-game stretch, eliminating all of Montreal's margin for error, and you had a recipe for disaster.

"It hurt our confidence," Pacioretty said. "When you're doing everything the right way and feel you deserve better, you're only human, you can only last for so long. It slips away from you. People say you have to be mentally stronger, or you've got to be able to handle that adversity, but the brain is a muscle too. You can only control so much and it starts to affect you and you start to doubt yourself and you start to think the puck's never going to go in. It crept into all of our minds."

That mental battle created a snowball effect that never ended.

The Canadiens numbers dropped considerably since Dec. 19 -- down to 15th in the NHL in SAT percentage, 27th in goals and 30th in goals against over that span. That drop was aided by a litany of other injuries that began afflicting them in February, but the damage was already done by then. 

Video: FLA@MTL: Hudler seals win for Panthers with PPG

"I think the confidence was still there in December, but you could start to tell in mid-January the guys were starting to get really tight," coach Michel Therrien said. "I don't know if it was a matter of confidence, but we felt the pressure as a group. And I could understand that."

So where does that leave the Canadiens and how do they assess things heading into the offseason? Was Price's injury the root cause of everything, even Montreal's inability to score?

No, that problem was left over from last season, when the shooters went similarly cold in the playoffs. General manager Marc Bergevin will need to address the lack of scoring ability on his team.

But what this season has also shown is that Price's biggest impact on the Canadiens might very well be psychological and no matter what adjustments are made, the mental advantage he provides simply by playing behind them is immeasurably important.

Still, Pacioretty hopes his teammates remember everything the Canadiens were doing well in front of Price when they were accomplishing everything they hoped to over the first quarter of the season, even if it seems like a distant memory now.

"I think before this all came crashing down we really were playing the right way and we addressed the areas that needed to be addressed," he said. "There were some great tweaks to the system and to the game plan and new players that really fit our system by coaches and management. I think when we really think about this year and why people are so obsessed it's because we knew what we had to do to be better and we addressed it and it started working perfectly. Then it all came crashing down."

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