While concerns over the Bruins' scoring drought continue to build, Canadiens fans find themselves with something in common with the Boston faithful: When will these teams shake off the rust and string together some wins?
Eric Meliton of Oh Canadiens checks in to sound off on the Carey Price vs. Jaroslav Halak controversy, disappointing defense and perhaps the greatest rivalry in hockey.
The Habs boast a 7-8-0 record heading into Thursday's showdown at the TD Garden. While a bunch of new faces on the roster attempt to get acclimated to their new surroundings, consistency has been as hard to come by in Montreal as it is in Boston.
NESN.com: Given the way things ended between these two teams in 2008-09, do you think the intensity of this matchup is ramped up even more than usual?
Eric Meliton: Seeing that they are both Original Six teams, this rivalry will always be ramped up. However, considering the Bruins eliminated the Habs in the 2009 playoffs during the Habs' centennial season, this game is even more important. Both the Bruins and the Habs are experiencing slugglish starts, and both teams can attribute this indirectly to injuries to key players. Despite these challenges, both teams have found ways to compensate for lost players.
In general, the Habs need to win this game even more. The team has a poor road record (2-5-0) and their internal challenges on special teams is highly documented (power play: 15.1 percent, 25th overall; penalty kill: 75.8 percent, 25th overall). Since the Bruins are generally a more aggressive team, this may be another factor that comes into play on Thursday night as the Habs have gotten smaller with regard to their top six forwards and have gotten slower with their defense corps.
NESN.com: The Habs have been quite the streaky team this year, losing five then winning four late last month. Do you think the early-season kinks are out and they're ready to win consistently, or do you see this as being something that could persist this season?
E.M.: With a set of new players acquired during the offseason combined with first-year head coach Jacques Martin attempting to implement new defensive and offensive schemes, streaks are bound to occur. The biggest issue right now that is being overblown amongst the fan base and media in Montreal is the goaltender controversy. Martin has currently implemented a "win and you're in" strategy with his goaltenders, which has resulted in a 7-7-0 record in October, but has probably begun to hurt the confidence of incumbent franchise goaltender Carey Price (2-5-0, 3.44 GAA, .889 save percentage).
Many have identified Price as the future of the Habs' franchise, and GM Bob Gainey has made changes to the team in recent years with those plans in mind. However, Price has shown some mental fragility, which relates back to a lackluster second half in 2008-09 and inconsistencies in the current 2009-10 campaign. Jaroslav Halak has shown that he has the ability to win games and has a better record thus far (5-2-0, 2.85 GAA, .893 save percentage). The Habs are reluctant to go with a strong tandem pairing of equal responsibility moving forward, so look for the team to possibly pull the trigger involving Halak, despite Price's poor play overall. This strategy has resulted in split support among the fan base and from different spectrums within the Montreal media. In the long term, it could get messy and affect the team on all levels.
NESN.com: Why has Carey Price failed to live up to his alleged potential thus far?
E. M.: Although he has shown signs of greatness and his long-term potential, he has shown an inability to finish games and has not been confident between the pipes overall. His offseason conditioning has improved, and his mental toughness continues to grow. However, at 22 years of age, the Habs could potentially harm Price's career development by putting him under the spotlight and media scrutiny in Montreal so soon. Price only spent 12 games in the American Hockey League before being called up in his rookie campaign, and this lack of developmental time has hurt him thus far. His confidence level has fluctuated to extreme highs and lows, and the ability to withstand this sort of pressure has not been learned. It'll be interesting to see if he can overcome stretches of adversity thrust upon him in 2009-10.
NESN.com: Pundits have criticized the Canadiens' defense already this season. Has the defense come together since the five-game skid in October, or do you think it will continue to be the weak spot for this team?
E.M.: Many have written the Canadiens off since stud defenseman Andrei Markov suffered an ankle injury in the first game of the 2009-10 campaign and underwent surgery. The team has signed free-agent defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron to assist with Markov's absence on the power play, but the amount of minutes and time spent in key defensive zone situations are still missing internally. Markov's absence is a gaping hole in the Habs' defense corps, despite the offseason acquisitions of Paul Mara and Hal Gill.
With Markov on the shelf, the defense no longer has a solid first-pass breakout defenseman or someone that can log 25-to-30-plus minutes each and every game. Not only are the Habs missing the offensive output Markov provides (12 goals, 52 assists, 64 points in 2008-09 with seven power-play goals), but he is also a quiet leader on this team, something that the team lacks on multiple levels. As the season progresses, the defensive woes should be worked out as Jacques Martin's defensive schemes will eventually take hold. However, they may remain near the bottom in many defensive categories until Markov returns from his injury.
NESN.com: This season, the Bruins have had trouble sustaining an effort for a full 60 minutes. It seems like the Habs have experienced something similar, particularly in their loss to the Leafs last weekend. Does this seem like a glaring problem to Canadiens fans?
E. M.: The Canadiens are not winning games easy in 2009-10. Many of their wins have come either in overtime or shootout fashion, and the team has excelled in those efforts. With their gaps on defense combined with a lack of size up front, the team is bound to lose some leads in any 60-minute span. However, the team has some leaders with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, and they have been Montreal's better forwards in the extra frames. If the goaltending situation can be amended soon, the Habs should have an easier time holding leads.
NESN.com: Which of Bob Gainey’s offseason acquisitions do you see making the biggest impact this year? Which acquisitions are you not fully convinced about?
E.M.: Early in the season, it was role players such as Travis Moen and Paul Mara that made the immediate impact through the rough patches dealing with Markov's injury concerns. Since that first week of the season, the true leaders of the team have come from their top scoring line of Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez. The trio have met all expectations thus far and have motivated others to follow. A resurgence in offense has been seen with the likes of Tomas Plekanec, and this can be attributed to teams focusing on the top line more. Cammalleri wanted to play in Montreal and has enjoyed his time on the top line with Gionta and Gomez. I foresee Gionta having the biggest impact on this squad, as his leadership on and off the ice has been integral.
As for acquisitions that have not panned out, I think the jury is still out on assessing that properly. The biggest concern for many cap specialists is Scott Gomez, who is a $7.3 million player and projected to potentially reach 65-75 points this year. He may not be the No. 1 center this team needs in the long term, but his contract terms are crippling if he struggles like he did with the New York Rangers. Currently, it's difficult to determine who will be a bust from Gainey's list of acquisitions.
NESN.com: Which Habs goalie do you feel more comfortable with in net?
E.M.: My readers and followers know that I am a Halak disciple. Many hardcore fans believe that Price is the second coming of Patrick Roy, but his play over the last 40-plus starts is starting to cause doubt about his long-term potential. Halak may not be the answer with the No. 1 role either, but his development within the farm system has allowed him to blossom at the NHL level. He is a capable backup and could be a strong starter, but both netminders have their challenges. As a tandem, the goaltending situation could be remedied, as the team could lean on both goalies to share equal playing time. It has worked for many other teams in the past, and with the potential injuries that come with the position, having a No. 1 and 1A goaltending tandem suits Montreal's style of play. The team's biggest challenges are the lack of size at forward and lack of mobility and offensive talent at defense (minus Markov). Goaltending is the least of their problems, as many teams would want to be in the current situation the Habs are in between the pipes.
Eric Meliton is an associate editor for Fanball.com, providing in-depth analysis for the NHL. He is also the Montreal Canadiens correspondent for the Fanball Blog Network. In addition, Eric is a freelance writer for various environmental and sports card magazines, while finding time to manage his own movie review blog and sports card store.
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