Canadiens takeaways: Bad back has contributed to Lehkonen’s sophomore slump

Carter Hutton made 33 saves while Ivan Barbashev, Patrik Berglund and Alexander Steen provided the scoring to help the St. Louis Blues defeat the Montreal Canadiens.

The Montreal Canadiens had it going on for the first 17 minutes of their game against the St. Louis Blues, recording the first 11 shots and limiting the Blues to none.

And then the home team flipped the switch, scored a chance goal, took control of the rest of the hockey game and won it by a score of 3-1.

That’s what good teams do.

Granted, they typically don’t start as sleepy as the sixth-ranked Blues did in this one. But on the odd occasion when that does happen, they’re able to reel it in, regroup and assert themselves.

Let’s delve into how the 27th-ranked Canadiens played their role in that outcome.

“You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.”

It’s a saying made famous by Wayne Gretzky, who scored an NHL-leading 894 goals over his prolific career.

We’ll tweak it a bit and say, you’re also going to have a hard time scoring when most of your best chances miss the net.

The Canadiens hit Blues goaltender Carter Hutton with 34 mostly harmless shots and had another 31 miss or get blocked.

Charles Hudon snuck a puck through with 1:07 remaining, while Montreal had a 6-on-4 advantage because Blues defenceman Colton Parayko was assessed a five-minute major for boarding Paul Byron, but it was a case of too little too late.

Too many missed opportunities has been a theme throughout the Canadiens’ first 50 games of the season. As a result, Montreal has now been held to two goals or less 29 times.

Tuesday’s game marked the 18th time this season the Canadiens were held to one goal or less. No other team in the NHL has been held in check to that extent.

Ugly droughts continue for Plekanec, Lehkonen

It’s one thing for 35-year-old Tomas Plekanec to go 18 games without scoring a goal — as he now has after being blanked by St. Louis — and it’s another for sophomore Artturi Lehkonen to go 22 games without one.

Plekanec, who was once a great two-way player, has seven 20-goal seasons to his name. But he no longer has a spot on the power play, and his main role over the last three years has been to keep the opposition’s best players in check on a nightly basis.

Lehkonen has been saddled with those responsibilities as well for most of the season as Plekanec’s linemate, but he still has the potential to produce at the same rate as a young Plekanec did — if he can recapture the form that saw him score 18 goals in 2016-17.

The 22-year-old had generated the most high-danger scoring chances on the Canadiens in the first 18 games of the season, according to naturalstattrick.com, but he had only managed to score twice over the period.

We’ve had it confirmed by multiple sources that Lehkonen had played a fair portion of those first 18 games with a bad back injury. It forced him to miss 16 games and he hasn’t found his touch — or the back of the net — since returning to Montreal’s lineup 16 games ago.

We don’t expect Plekanec to turn back the clock and start scoring at will, but Lehkonen continues to generate the type of chances that would have anyone suggest he’ll rebound soon.

He had five shots on net against St. Louis, and three of them accounted for Montreal’s best scoring chances of the game.

Another (centre) down

A team that started the season with arguably the worst centre depth in the league took another blow on Tuesday, when Byron went down in a heap behind the Blues net with 2:34 remaining.

The speedy left-winger has done an exceptional job filling for Phillip Danault (concussion) since taking his spot up the middle six games ago, recording at least a point in each game (one goal and five assists) before being held in check against the Blues.

With Danault out indefinitely — and with Andrew Shaw out for four to six more weeks with a lower-body injury — an extended absence for Byron would certainly hurt.

He left the ice favouring his right arm, keeping it tight to his body after jamming his shoulder into the boards. He did not return.

Canadiens coach Claude Julien told reporters he didn’t think there was anything alarming in Byron’s case but also said he’d be re-evaluated Wednesday morning.

Benn scratched, Alzner next?

It wasn’t entirely surprising that Julien decided to scratch veteran defenceman Jordie Benn on Tuesday, after Benn played arguably his worst game of the season in a 6-5 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes at the Bell Centre last Thursday.

What was surprising was what Julien said about the decision Tuesday morning.

“We need more from certain players, and right now he’s one of the defencemen who is struggling the most,” Julien said. “He loses a lot of his battles along the boards, we want him to move the puck better on our zone exits. Right now, we’re picking a player who’s having the most trouble, but he’s not the only one having trouble.

“So, at some point, we have to make the players accountable for their performance.”

Blunt. Perhaps even a bit harsh.

“It’s the truth,” said Julien, doubling down. “He’s a good player, and we like him. If it was a vote on popularity, he’d be in tonight because he’s a good team player, he’s the kind of guy we like. Just because he’s sitting out tonight it’s not because we don’t like the guy, it’s because he’s been struggling. I think you have to make hockey decisions versus popularity decisions, and this is where we are right now.

“There’s other guys back there that are struggling and if they don’t pick up their game, they’ll get their turn as well.”

Should we expect Julien to finally sit Karl Alzner for a game after he cost the Canadiens yet another goal (he’s cost them too many to count this season) — this time by nearly backing all the way into Carey Price’s crease and screening him in the process on Ivan Barbashev’s tie-breaking shot at 4:38 of the second period?

It would take major stones to do it, considering Alzner’s in the first season of a five-year, $23.1-million contract and he hasn’t missed a regular-season game since 2010.

But we wouldn’t discount it as a possibility. Of the six defencemen Julien used against St. Louis, only Victor Mete (16:14) played less than Alzner did (17:40).

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