According to the Oxford Dictionaries, the term “special” can have several various, and quite different, meanings. When used as an adjective, it can denote, “belonging specifically to a particular person or place”
(2). In hockey, that definition applies to what has become known as “special teams”–the powerplay and penalty killing units which indicate a man advantage, or man disadvantage, depending on the exact nature of the penalty called (a five on four, a five on three, etc.). Quite often in the NHL, games are determined by the deployment and utilization of the “special teams.” For instance, if a team’s powerplay is formidable, and other teams playing against them have a multitude of penalties called against them, thereby providing the aforementioned powerplay ample opportunity to execute, the chances are quite good that the team with the best
PP will win the game. For the exhibition edition of the 2010-11 Montreal Canadiens, the (in)effectiveness of their “special teams” was disappointing and a major cause of many of their frustrations and losses.
In recent years, the Montreal Canadiens have won most of their games based on their special teams–mostly through an explosive and dangerous powerplay (we all remember Sheldon Souray’s and Mark Streit’s booming shots from the point, do we not?); combine that with a more-than-decent penalty-killing unit, and one would assume that the the Habs should have a strong overall record, with a very real opportunity of winning each and every game they play. Last year, for example, Montreal’s powerplay was 2nd overall in the NHL with a 21.8% efficiency level; also, the penalty killing unit was 12th overall in the league with a 83% efficiency. The latter number is quite respectable, and the former is simply spectacular. However, the Habs did not officially make the playoffs last season until its final day, mainly due to the fact that the team could not score goals during five-on-five situations (ultimately finishing last in the NHL on that front).
This year’s edition–so far only the “exhibition” edition–of the Montreal Canadiens struggled mightily with its execution during special teams play. First, versus the Boston Bruins on September 22nd, they went a mediocre 1/3, while their rivals that night finished the same, 1/3. The Habs’ next game, September 24th, was a little better for Les Canadiens: their power-play went 1/5, while the Ottawa Senators were stifled by Montreal’s penalty killing, forcing the Sens to go 0/5. However, only one night later, against Ottawa once again, the Habs went a paltry 1/9, while the Senators went 3/7. Again, on September 26th against the Minnesota Wild, Montreal went 0/6, and the Wild went 0/3. Also, following the same trend against the Florida Panthers the very next night, the Habs went 0/8, while the Panthers shot 2/7. One of the Montreal Canadiens poorest showings on special teams, however, occurred several days later–September 30th–against the Buffalo Sabres: that night, the Sabres went 3/8 while Les Habitants went 0/6. While Montreal’s special teams proved to be much better in the last pre-season game against the New York Islanders on October 2nd, I refuse to put much stock in that game because Montreal iced a much stronger team (almost an A-team, but no Gionta, Gomez, etc.) against a far weaker
‘B’ team from the Islanders (no Tavares, Moulson, etc.). Overall, the 2010 exhibition edition of the Habs power-play finished a pathetic 3/37, with a shocking 0 goals on six 5/3 powerplays! Moreover, the penalty killing department ended up being the second worst in the preseason, allowing 9 goals against. Those numbers are simply unacceptable and must be addressed in detail in order for the Canadiens to be successful in the regular season.
Now, some may argue that Montreal has not iced its ‘A’ team for any of those exhibition games, and little investment can be put into what happens in the preseason when a myriad of younger players often get their respective chances to demonstrate what they can bring to the table. That is a valid point; but, should we not be concerned with the lack of production of their “special teams,” even at this juncture…? After all, the season is almost upon us, Habs fans… Presently, there are numerous holes in both the power-play and penalty-killing units on the club. For sure, they have yet to secure the services of their power-play quarterback, Andrei Markov, who should be returning to the lineup by the end of October, or earlier (which would certainly give the powerplay a boost, because his vision, anticipation, passing ability, and shot are amongst the best in the league). Markov also serves as one of the team’s better penalty-killing defencemen when healthy, and will help bolster the penalty killing unit as well. Nevertheless, going back to the term “special”: Oxford Dictionaries also defines the word as, “better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual”
(1). At this point, the Habs’ “special teams” are drastically lacking in what should be greater and better than usual. Let us hope that they find their form from previous seasons and re-establish their dominance in those key components of the game. If not, this may not be a “special” season for both the Montreal Canadiens and their diehard fans.