With the Christmas break started, the Montreal Canadiens sit with a three-point lead over the second-place Ottawa Senators in the Atlantic, while also holding a game in hand. While a few weeks ago the Canadiens were first in the league, it has changed massively in part of the injuries that the team is enduring. In the last month, the Habs haven’t been the same team with the loss of star centre Alex Galchenyuk. As well, as powerplay specialist Andrei Markov who is listed as day-to-day. The other injuries to the team include Greg Pateryn, Andrew Shaw, and David Desharnais. Desharnais and Galchenyuk both have the same prognosis which should keep them out of the lineup for another month.
The lack of a Top Six Centre
With Galchenyuk out another month, the team lacks a true top six centre. Tomas Plekanec is no longer the same player that he was in previous years. With only a three goals on the season, he can’t produce the amount the team was expecting from their best two-way forward. At the age of 34, Plekanec is playing more like a third line centre than a second.
Plekanec was a first line centre for a few years before Galchenyuk finally took over the reigns this season. However, Plekanec’s lack of offense has taken a toll on his ability to play as a second line centre.
Then there is Phillip Danault who is currently centering the top line with Alexander Radulov and Max Pacioretty. While Danault had success with his linemates, he lacks the actual skill to centre a top line. Danault who started the season on the fourth line has shown that he is ready to move up the line-up. However, at 23 he lacks the offensive ability to play in the top six regularly.
Other than Galchenyuk, the only other player who has the offensive instinct to play in the top six for a short period is Desharnais. While, many would say he is too small and not skilled enough to play there permanently. He can still play in the top six in a situation when injuries occur. However, he got injured right after Galchenyuk and the Canadiens have had a huge hole down the middle.
Even when Galchenyuk comes back there will still be a hole that likely could only be fixed through a trade. The hole at centre is not the only problem that Galchenyuk’s injury leaves. The other is the powerplay.
Over the last 30 power plays, the Canadiens, who were once among the league’s top power plays, have only scored on three of those occasions. It is quite a steep fall. One of the biggest issues is that the Habs are unable to set up a powerplay on zone entry. Galchenyuk and Markov are known to be two of the team’s best puck movers. Although Markov is getting up there in age and isn’t as fast as he once was, he can still move the puck well. Another good puck mover in Alex Radulov has been in a slump as of late and isn’t successful with his work to get into the zone.
One other problem is the fact that teams have figured out that the Habs constantly try to set Shea Weber up for a one-timer. Weber may have one of the best shots in the NHL but it is no longer effective when the opposing penalty kills expect him to shoot. The impact of Galchenyuk gives them another threat on the power play. With Galchenyuk in the lineup, the Habs have Weber’s point shot on the left side of the ice, and Galchenyuk’s one timer on the right faceoff dot. This spreads out other team’s penalty killers and provides space for the Habs to move the puck. The lack of a one time option on the right side of the ice is glaring.
Max Pacioretty has been the only one to have success on the powerplay since Galchenyuk’s injury and even those goals were scored the same way he scores at 5-on-5. He has been one of the few consistent bright spots to the Habs forwards as of late along with Paul Byron. Another is rookie Artturi Lehkonen.
Lehkonen’s transition to the NHL wasn’t perfect but he has shown some great signs for his future. The 21-year old Finnish forward has given the Canadiens much needed scoring depth. He currently ranks tied for sixth in goals with seven. However, it’s not just his ability to add scoring depth that makes him so useful.
Lehkonen came to North America with a polished two-way style of game which makes him effective in every situation. He does the little things that will set him up to have a long, productive NHL career. He is getting better each game, Lehkonen has the potential to become a solid top six winger for years to come. His hockey smarts help him to be successful anywhere in the lineup. When the team is healthy, don’t be surprised if Lehkonen finds himself on the top line with Alex Galchenyuk and Alex Radulov.
While Byron was good with them early in the season, he isn’t a full-time solution to that top line left wing spot. Pacioretty is the best left-wing on the team but knowing Michel Therrien he likes to balance his lines out. With Lehkonen getting better each game it makes sense that he will be ready for that role soon.
Jeff Petry has been the Habs best defenseman offensively for the last couple of weeks. While Weber’s shot has been effectively stopped by opposing teams, Petry’s shot hasn’t. In his last five games, Petry has scored four goals including a game-winner against the Washington Capitals.
Often Petry goes unnoticed for his work on the Habs as he’s always slotted behind an all-star defenseman but he does a tremendous job at both ends of the ice. Petry has played well blocking shots on the penalty kill. He has also been getting power play time which includes his two power play goals on the season. He is tied for the most goals and points for a defenseman on the Habs with Weber with eight and 17. However, unlike Weber, Petry has scored six of his eight goals at even strength.
Petry is on pace for a career year offensively and has already tied his career high in goals.
Entering Christmas break, the Habs have done a good job despite the loss of six regulars in the lineup. Since Galchenyuk’s injury, the Canadiens have collected 10 of a possible 18 points. It has looked harder on the team as of late but they are still giving a lot of effort game in, and game out.
Brendan Gallagher is in a bad scoring slump, but he hasn’t stopped doing the little things right. Last Tuesday, Gallagher pissed off the Anaheim Ducks very well by getting underneath the players’ skin which drew penalties. It’s only a matter of time before Gallagher gets on the scoresheet again and starts lighting up lamps like he’s used to. He works so hard that it’s impossible to not see it coming to an end soon. This may also come back to the centre problem. When Gallagher is at his best, he is a pest, who creates room for his linemates to create plays offensively. Right now Gallagher, like the rest of the Habs, is not playing with a centre who makes things happen.
Shea Weber hasn’t looked the same as he was during the first 25 games offensively. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have expected him to score less long-term as he was scoring record high numbers. However, he keeps missing the net which is concerning, and may be a sign that something is up with the team’s top defenseman. Earlier there was speculation about a possible wrist injury. This could end up being true; however, he is still unyielding defensively meaning that it is fine to let him play.
The Canadiens next game will be in Tampa Bay on Wednesday. Puck drop will be at 7:30 ET. The Habs will be looking to end a two game losing streak.
MONTREAL, QC – NOVEMBER 24: Montreal Canadiens Left Wing Max Pacioretty (67) celebrating his goal, making it 2-1 during the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Montreal Canadiens game on November 24, 2016, at Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)