MONTREAL—As painful as it might be for the Montreal Canadiens and their fans to look back on the first 71 games of a season that appeared all but guaranteed to end in a third consecutive playoff miss, it’s an essential exercise to run through before we begin to look forward.
When the NHL slammed the pause button in the second week of March due to risks associated to the novel coronavirus, the Canadiens were all but finished. They had suffered two eight-game losing streaks early on that proved devastating, they lost all four games to a Detroit Red Wings team that won just 13 times in their 67 other contests, and they failed to gain any ground on multiple teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings who had left the door to the playoffs wide open with losing spells of their own.
It wasn’t all bad.
Nick Suzuki emerged as one of the best rookies in the NHL, and a couple of fellow 2017 draft picks, Cale Fleury and Ryan Poehling, got their feet wet at hockey’s highest level. The Canadiens established themselves as a 5-on-5 juggernaut with the league’s second-best shot attempt differential and generated the second-most high-danger scoring chances.
But the fact they were 13th in both 5-on-5 goals and 5-on-5 goal differential speaks to their inefficiency in capitalizing on chances and highlights some of the issues they had defending their own end. It’s also indicative of the goaltending being largely inconsistent throughout and not up to par for portions of the season.
Speaking of not being up to par: Montreal’s power play, which had shown early-season signs of life after a pathetic offering in 2018-19, had produced less than any other team in the league from Feb. 1 to Mar. 11. And, over the same period of time, the Canadiens’ penalty kill had managed to kill off just 79.3 per cent of its penalties, which was 20th-best in the 31-team circuit.
Their special teams were an accurate reflection of where they were, from a mental standpoint, when the season was paused: With 11 games remaining and a 10-point deficit in the standings to overcome, the Canadiens were dejected, downtrodden and dreading having to wait any longer to be put out of their misery.
But that’s all in the past now.
What will four months away from the ice offer the Canadiens—or any other team—in the way of perspective? What will the benefits of extensive rest do for them both physically and psychologically? What will the unexpected opportunity to play for a Stanley Cup bring out of them?
There are a lot of unknowns here.
But the unknown should be a welcome commodity for the Canadiens and their fans—especially up against all we learned about the team from October to March.
Here are some of their key storylines moving forward…
Max Domi’s availability
The 25-year-old, who has type-1 diabetes and celiac disease, is in the middle of a seven-to-10-day holding pattern, waiting to receive clearance from doctors to play.
Domi produced 17 goals and 44 points in 71 games this season after scoring 28 goals and 72 points over the course of the 2018-19 season. If the Canadiens don’t have him at their disposal –specifically up the middle — their chances of advancing past the play-in round go from not very good to dismal.
The Carey Price factor
We know the spectre of playing against the soon-to-be 33-year-old was a big part of the reason some teams fought against having the eight teams that were on the playoff bubble when the season was paused participate in this tournament for the Stanley Cup. Now the question is, will Price offer the type of performance that stands up to his reputation?
In 58 appearances with the Canadiens this season, the Anahim Lake, B.C., native had a .909 save percentage and a 2.79 goals-against average. Those aren’t exactly numbers that would strike fear in an opponent.
But if the Canadiens get the Price who posted a .933 save percentage and a 1.86 goals-against average in his last playoff appearance (in 2017), watch out.
The thought of having Shea Weber at 100 per cent has to be a comforting one for a Canadiens team that hasn’t had the benefit of their captain being rested and healthy for many games since he was traded to Montreal in the summer of 2016.
Beyond Weber, Ben Chiarot has to pick up where he left off—the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder hit career highs in goals, points and average time on ice in 69 games.
Ditto for Jeff Petry, who registered at least 40 points for a third consecutive season.
After that, it gets a little dicey.
Can Brett Kulak be a stable No. 4 after an up-and-down season? Can 22-year-old Victor Mete take a crucial step forward in his development and produce more offence? Can one of Noah Juulsen or Fleury prove reliable enough to play above Christian Folin in the pecking order?
There are depth issues here, particularly on the left side of the defence. Karl Alzner has opted out of returning to play this summer, and that leaves Gustav Olofsson and Xavier Ouellet competing as options.
When you look at the sum of the parts, it’s hard to view this as a team strength.
Who’s going to score the goals?
Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher each had 22 goals to lead the Canadiens this season, but they both play on the same line.
That means Jonathan Drouin, Joel Armia, Paul Byron, Artturi Lehkonen, Suzuki and Domi (if he’s available) are going to have to provide that crucial secondary boost.
The fact Domi leads that group with 17 goals highlights the concern Montreal might have in this department.