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There’s a definite malaise that’s affecting the Canadiens in recent weeks. Here are some of the most critical elements that should be analyzed in the coming days and weeks to put the season back on track.

1. The gap between the forwards and defense is much too large, particularly when the Canadiens defense has the puck. There are no easy options as the Habs forwards fly out of the zone into coverage. Unless this is corrected, there will always be significant difficulty in the transition game and in getting anything going offensively. If you’re a defender with the puck and you have no options, all you can do is chip the glass. The majority of the time, that’s an instantaneous loss of possession and the puck is going to come right back at you.

There’s a distinct lack of support offensively. When you watched the Leafs attack tonight, there were two, and even three forwards in fairly close proximity to the puck so there were options and also so that, if the puck carrier lost control or was checked, there was a teammate close by to corral the loose puck and continue the attack. Montreal is so spaced out physically in the offensive zone that there can be no continued pressure. The forwards have to support each other and look for the simple short plays.

2. B) The defenders have to implicate themselves into the attack. In particular, when Markov jumps into the rush or makes himself available in the offensive zone during an extended cycle thus giving the Habs a four-man cycle rather than just the standard three, we’re dangerous. In fact, every game that Markov has taken it upon himself to jump into the attack has been significantly better than those where he’s sat back.

3. Montreal isn’t going to the net anymore. Case in point: Koivu, for the month of December, could be found in the opposing goaltender’s lap for significant periods of the time when the Habs had control of the puck. Even since he took Souray’s slap shot off the leg, he’s avoided going to the net, and as a result has only one goal since. In stark contrast, the Leafs
barreled the net all night. If you create traffic and get the pucks to the net, good things happen – that’s a hockey truism.

4. One of the high points of the early season was the Canadiens ability to get into opposing shooting lanes. Tonight’s game was a little better, for sure, but in general lately they’ve been allowing far too many shots and that’s a direct result of bad positioning. Furthermore, tonight the Habs were caught allowing the trailing forward a free shot from the high slot. This tells me we’re backing in far too quickly and aren’t putting up a fight at the blueline.

5. Rivet and Souray *must* find their respective games. They’re bordering on
calamitous at the back right now, with Souray in particular firing Brisebois-ish passes to opposing attackers. If we have any hope of being successful, these two in particular must, must, must simplify their games and start being smart with the puck.

6. No pucks practices: this team needs at least one or two. The work ethic of this team has been declining fairly alarmingly since before Christmas and as a result the confidence level has correspondingly plummeted. If you aren’t willing to work hard – win the battles, stay *constantly* moving in the attacking zone, look for the proper mark defensively – you won’t win hockey games. Tonight had about 15 minutes (and that’s generous) of high-intensity hockey from the Habs. The rest was forgettable.

7. No more All-Star game. I cannot remember the last time Montreal sent a goalie to this mid-season “classic” and didn’t have him come back with his confidence all but shattered. Please explain to me how a goalie can go and get
pummeled for a couple of days, all the while picking up bad habits since he isn’t working as hard as he should be, is good for a team ever. Has there been a goalie so far who has played well in his first game back? That’s questionable.

8. The “Begin” principle. When was the last time Montreal dominated in the hitting department? I would suggest that
occurred when last Begin was in the lineup – and I think it’s no coincidence that the Habs quality of game has declined since they stopped hitting. At one point early in this season, Perezhogin was amongst the team leaders in hits – Perezhogin. Now we, as fans, are lucky if we see two or three a game. Komisarek, Bouillon, Bonk, Johnson, Latendresse – we have the players to do it and we were routinely doing it early this season. Now, we’ve stopped, and as a result I believe we’re not as good a team as we were. We absolutely must become physical again. It creates room for the skilled players and it puts the opposition on its back foot.

9. It is critical that the team start winning the one-on-one battles along the boards. I would guesstimate that we’re winning approximately 25-35% of them during a game, and it’s only guys like Bonk and Markov who consistently win them game in and game out. The Canadiens (indeed any team) will struggle to even make the playoffs no matter their skill level if they keep losing possession during those critical times on the boards – particularly in the defensive end while trying to clear the zone.

The Montreal team we see today is no different from the one that was on the ice at the start of the season, so bemoaning the lack of a trade for help seems somewhat silly considering we were one of the best teams early on. All that needs to happen is for the Canadiens to start playing like they mean it and take the game to the opposition rather than fall back and have the game taken to them. Confidence will not improve if they play passive hockey, they absolutely must start being the initiators in all facets of the game.

That doesn’t mean a trade won’t help (or isn’t in the offing), mind you, and I’m certain management is constantly looking for ways to improve the club. Perhaps we’ll see a move in the next few days, perhaps before the trade deadline, it’s entirely possible. However, the reality is that this team *should* be competitive as is; they just have to find their game and regain confidence.

Perhaps they could use this mini-checklist to help them on their way.

Special to HabsWorld

– A Concerned Fan