There’s a reason why Jeff Gorton didn’t want to use the “p-word” at the Canadiens’ golf tournament before the start of this season.
The team’s executive vice-president of hockey operations didn’t want to say the word playoffs because he knew it would put added pressure on the young players and coaching staff heading into the second full season of a rebuild. While Gorton would love to see his team make the playoffs, he also realizes a rebuild takes time and wants the focus to remain on growth and player development. He knows the Canadiens aren’t ready yet to be legitimate playoff contenders.
We’ve seen that through the first 18 games with the Canadiens posting a 7-9-2 record that has them sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic Division standings heading into Wednesday’s game in Anaheim against the Ducks (10 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM).
Losing centre Kirby Dach for the year after he suffered a knee injury in the second game of the season certainly didn’t help the Canadiens and neither did losing veteran defenceman David Savard for 6-8 weeks with a fractured hand. The injuries keep piling up, with defenceman Jordan Harris out indefinitely and forward Rafaël Harvey-Pinard out six to eight weeks with lower-body injuries. Defenceman Arber Xhekaj (upper body) will also miss action while the Canadiens head out on this three-game California road trip.
The Canadiens can look like a playoff team on certain nights, but they don’t have the experience, depth or goal-scoring to do it consistently. The Canadiens looked great when they beat the Bruins 3-2 in overtime at the Bell Centre two Saturdays ago, but were blown out 5-2 last Saturday in Boston in what looked like a total mismatch. After the game, head coach Martin St. Louis said his team was a little soft.
“I think our game was soft,” captain Nick Suzuki said after practice Monday in Brossard. “I don’t think as a team we’re soft. We didn’t play good — there’s no denying that. We were slow, we were late on pucks. We were turning the puck over. There are different terms you can use for soft … we definitely played soft on a team that plays hard. It was unacceptable. We know that and we understand we’re going to have to do better.
“We can’t keep losing games,” Suzuki added. “You can’t pile on the losses. It’s a big opportunity to go out West and play some teams that I think we can have some good games against. For us, it’s just a matter of getting back to where we were a couple of weeks ago, competing, making plays and getting our confidence back.”
The Ducks have a 9-9-0 record and are on a three-game losing streak in which they have been outscored 13-4. The San Jose Sharks, who the Canadiens will play Friday (3:30 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM), are the worst team in the NHL with a 3-14-1 record. The Los Angeles Kings, who will play the Canadiens Saturday (4 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM) on U.S. Thanksgiving weekend, have an 11-3-3 record.
“I think we’re a good team,” veteran centre Sean Monahan said Monday. “When we’re at our best we compete every night against any team in the league. I think we’ve shown that. We got to be consistent and I think that comes on individuals and everybody’s got to have their standards, coming in and expect to play their ‘A’ game every night. If it’s not going your way, you got to find ways to produce or help the team.
“I thought we were playing good hockey for a good stretch there,” Monahan added. “When you feel too comfortable coming into games and think it’s going to be like that every night that’s when it gets away from you and I think that’s kind of where we’re at right now. We got to get back to work and the little details in games, stay on top of that.”
The stats don’t lie when it comes to where the Canadiens are now in their rebuild.
They rank 23rd in the NHL in offence, scoring an average of 2.83 goals per game, and 26th in defence, allowing an average of 3.56 goals per game. Their power play has improved, tied for 14th in the NHL at 20 per cent, but they rank 25th in penalty-killing (74.4 per cent) and lead the league in minor penalties taken with 88. The Canadiens rank 25th in shots with an average of 29.4 per game and 30th in shots against, giving up an average of 34.9. The New York Islanders (35.1) and the Sharks (38.3) are the only two teams allowing more shots on their goalies.
“Losing’s never fun,” Monahan said. “You kind of take it personal and it lives with you. You lose a game you think about it quite a bit and what you could have done better. You don’t really want to be in that head space. You want to get back on track right away.”
That’s part of the rebuilding process.
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