Pat Hickey: Canadiens should ditch annual road trips over the holidays

Each year, the team is banished from the Bell Centre to make room for family entertainment and the result is almost always negative.

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As the song goes, there’s no place like home for the holidays, but that’s not a sentiment shared by Canadiens management.

Each year at this time, the Canadiens are banished from the Bell Centre to make room for family entertainment. After the Canadiens play the New York Islanders Saturday, they won’t play another home game until Jan. 4, when the Buffalo Sabres visit Montreal.

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While the Cirque du Soleil takes up residence from Dec. 21 through Dec. 31, the Canadiens will play in Winnipeg, Nashville and Chicago before Christmas, come home for brief break and then go back on the road to play in Carolina, Florida, Tampa and Dallas.

The annual exodus doesn’t make sense on several levels.

First, there is the competitive aspect.

Historically, the Canadiens have struggled in December, particularly on the road. Since the 2019-20 season, they have a 12-26 record in December for a winning percentage of .316.

After Wednesday’s marathon shootout loss to Pittsburgh, they are now 2-3-1 this month — a .416 winning percentage. That has kept them within hailing distance of a wild-card playoff berth, but the tough sledding begins next week on the road and history says the Canadiens will lose ground before they return home.

In the games before and after Christmas since 2019, the Canadiens are 4-12-1 and that translates to a .265 winning percentage.

Then there’s the toll the trip takes on the players and their families. Long road trips can be a burden, but are particularly stressful leading up to Christmas. Last year, the Canadiens played in Dallas on Dec. 23 and arrived home in the wee hours of Christmas Eve and then headed back on road on Dec. 27.

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The Canadiens get a bit of a break this year because they wrap their pre-Christmas trip on Dec. 22 in Chicago. That gives them an extra day at home and also avoids the Dec. 23 hex.

It may simply be a matter of not being able to focus with Christmas around the corner, but the Canadiens have not fared well on Dec. 23. Beginning with a 6-0 loss in Ottawa in 1996, they were winless in 10 games (0-9-1) before winning in Carolina in 2010. They are 2-5 since then in games played on Dec. 23.

As part of their rebuild, the Canadiens have beefed up their analytics, development, sports science and medical departments to give the team a better chance to succeed. Now it’s time to look at a schedule that is more player-friendly over the holidays, even if it means sacrificing some appearances by the Cirque.

Oilers turning it around: There should be fewer rumours about the Edmonton Oilers coveting one of the Canadiens’ goaltenders now that Connor McDavid and friends have started once again playing like Stanley Cup contenders.

McDavid picked up 25 points in a 10-game scoring streak, but the major factor in the Oilers’ eight-game winning streak has been goaltender Stuart Skinner. He was in goal for seven of those wins and gave up only 12 goals for a 1.70 goals-against average.

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The Oilers also changed coaches with Kris Knoblauch — McDavid’s junior coach — replacing Jay Woodcroft. While I subscribe to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ philosophy that, if you hire the right man, there’s no reason to let him go — the change seems to have had a positive effect in Edmonton.

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A change also seems to be working in Minnesota, where the Wild is 5-2 after John Hynes replaced Dean Evason.

And the St. Louis Blues changed direction this week with Drew Bannister taking over as interim head coach after GM Doug Armstrong fired Craig Berube, who was the right guy in 2019 when he led the Blues to their only Stanley Cup but the wrong guy after a four-game losing streak left St. Louis in 10th place in the Western Conference.

Different strokes: Canada and the United States, two of the favourites in the upcoming World Junior Hockey Championships, are drawing their players from two different pools.

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Canada will rely on major junior players with two notable exceptions, Macklin Celebrini and Matthew Wood. Celebrini, a freshman at Boston University, is expected to be the No. 1 overall choice in next year’s draft, while Wood, a University of Connecticut sophomore, was Nashville’s first-round choice in June.

The U.S. squad draws mainly on NCAA players, but includes two forwards from U.S.-based OHL teams. Dual U.S.-Canadian citizen Carey Terrance, a second-round choice of the Anaheim Ducks, plays for the Erie Otters, while Gavin Hayes, a third-round pick for Chicago, plays for the Flint Firebirds.

Owen Beck is the only Canadiens’ prospect on Team Canada, while Boston University defenceman Lane Hutson and Boston College goaltender Jacob Fowler will represent the U.S.

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