When you woke up this morning to check the standings in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, you might have noticed a big shift. The Montreal Canadiens, who for so long have held a guaranteed position as one of the top 3 teams in the Atlantic Division, have now been passed by the Toronto Maple Leafs and are in a wild card spot. Granted, the Leafs have played 2 more games than the Habs (and the Senators), but that is a telling stat and it also means that the uneven play of the Senators has hurt them for the time being.
The Habs have been in a free-fall of late, losing 4 in a row. It would have been 6 straight if not for Carey Price stealing the game against the Senators and Craig Anderson gifting the overtime goal to P.K. Subban. The Habs are in turmoil, with some people calling for Michel Therrien’s head. More than a few people are doing that.
But the fact is, the grind of a long NHL season has to be getting to the smallish Habs. Only 5 of their forwards who have played more than 15 games are taller than 6 feet. The way the game is played today, there is room for smaller players, but not in the ratio that the Habs have. Four of their top 5 scoring forwards are under 6′ and 200 lbs. The wear and tear on them is a little too much for the small lineup to handle.
On defense, they rely so much on an aging Andrei Markov and smaller defensemen like Raphael Diaz, Josh Gorges and even P.K. Subban. Their big guys are slow (Douglas Murray) or not quite ready (Jarred Tinordi). Alexei Yemelin plays bigger than his 6’2″ frame, and that pounding takes its toll.
Last season, I wrote that I didn’t understand how the Canadiens were leading the Eastern Conference, and as it turns out around the 48 game mark, or the end of the shortened season, they hit a wall. This season, about the same point in time the Habs have seemed to slam against that wall once again and are poised for a free fall. At the 48 game mark this season, Montreal was 3 points behind Boston and in contention for the Atlantic Division lead. Six games later, they trail the Bruins and Lightning by 8 points and don’t seem to be able to stem the tide, playing their worst game in a long time against the Capitals on Saturday night.
Combine that with the fact that they have so many players heading to Sochi for the Olympics and it is going to take a Herulean effort from Carey Price to get the Habs into the playoffs.
The Senators have issues of their own at the moment, most notably goaltending, but they are in the mix and with a decent string of play could find themselves in the third spot in the division before the Olympic break, ahead of the Habs and Maple Leafs.
But first things first, they need to reel in the Canadiens, which the way they are going right now, shouldn’t take too long.