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Montreal's recent defensive struggles a cause for concern?

By Adam Gretz | Hockey writer

Carey Price is in a slump, but it's not time to panic in Montreal. (USATSI)
Carey Price is in a slump, but it's not time to panic in Montreal. (USATSI)

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Through the first three months of the 2013 season, the second Michel Therrien experience in Montreal has been significantly better than his first one behind the bench in the early 2000s.

The Canadiens, having already clinched a playoff spot to return to the postseason after falling short a year ago in what was a disastrous season, enter the weekend as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Not only that, they're still fighting for the Northeast Division title and what would be one of the top two seeds in the playoffs.

Unfortunately for the Canadiens they've hit some bumps in the road recently, particularly when it comes to their play defensively and in net.

Before their 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night, the Canadiens had lost three in a row and four of their previous five, allowing a whopping 22 goals during that stretch. Needless to say it's a bad time of the year to start experiencing defensive breakdowns and sub-par goaltending.

Is it a legitimate concern at this point? And how much of the blame falls on the defense itself as opposed to the goaltending duo of Carey Price and Peter Budaj?

Following a 6-4 loss in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, a game where Budaj was pulled after the first period and both goalies allowed three goals on the night, defenseman Josh Gorges refused to put the blame on the goalies and instead put it on himself.

All of the blame.

"I wouldn't blame the goalies at all, especially the last two losses," said Gorges on Wednesday. "If you want to blame somebody, blame me. I'll take full responsibility for the way we played. I wouldn't blame the goalies one bit."

That seems a bit excessive, and while it's nice that he was willing to stand up and take blame for his teammates, the goaltenders haven't exactly been playing lights-out hockey during this recent slump. No question the Canadiens have had some issues allowing odd-man rushes in recent games and have been guilty of some bad turnovers that have led to goals, but there's also been a few soft goals that have found the back of the net that simply need to be stopped.

Consider the game that started Montreal's recent defensive slide, a 5-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 13, a game that saw goals like these from Leo Komarov, Jay McClement and Dion Phaneuf.

Yes, those are some bad goals and it's hard to fault the defense for plays like that. Especially when it comes to the first and third goals.

There were similar goals given up in the next game against Philadelphia, a 7-3 loss. Like the first two of the game:

And even on Wednesday night in Pittsburgh when they allowed six goals.

Neither the defense nor the goaltending are to blame for all of it, but neither are to be excused of responsibility either.

But it's not all bad news for the Canadiens.

For one, Price isn't going to continue giving up goals on more than 20 percent of the shots he faces as he's done recently. No goaltender is immune to slumps and Price is currently mired in what has to be one of the worst of his career. But it's not the first time he's struggled over a stretch of games like this, and like every other top goaltender, he's shown a history of being able to bounce back.

Just look at his cumulative save percentage since the start of last season.

CareyPrice

There are some peaks and valleys in there, but that's not out of the ordinary for goalies.

Again, it's a bad time of the year for such a slump, but he still has time before the playoffs to work himself out of it.

But here's why the Canadiens should be hopeful ...

Even during these recent losses the Canadiens have still been able to do the one thing they've excelled at all season: control the pace of the game in meaningful situations and create more shot attempts than their opponents. A lot more.

Even during their recent losses they were still creating more shots than their opponents, particularly during five-on-five play and adjusting for score effects. They've been one of the best teams in the league in that area all season.

As of Friday the Canadiens are second in the NHL in FenTied (trailing only the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings), which is the percentage of shots and missed shots a team gets when the score is tied. By looking at situations when the game is tied (or close) you eliminate the noise you get when teams are altering their playing styles when they're ahead or behind. A team that's winning by two goals in the third period isn't going to attempt as many shots as a team that's trailing because that team is going to sit back and defend its lead while the trailing team is in desperation mode, firing as many shots as it can and from every direction in an effort to catch up.

When the game is tied teams are still playing within their system and it's a greater reflection of a team's talent level and ability.

As of Friday the Canadiens are attempting nearly 56 percent of the unblocked shots in such situations. Very few teams have scored that well in recent years, and the ones that have tend to do very well in the postseason.

Going back to the start of the 2007-08 season only six teams have finished a season higher than 55 percent in FenTied. Five of them advanced past the first round of the playoffs, one of them (last year's Blues) lost in the second round to the eventual Stanley Cup champion, three of them went to the Stanley Cup Final themselves, and two of them (the 2009-10 Blackhawks and 2007-08 Red Wings) won the whole thing.

The Canadiens have a long way to go before they reach that level, but the Eastern Conference is absolutely wide open at this point. Every team has its share of flaws and for as loaded as Pittsburgh looks in the top spot after its recent trade deadline acquisitions, the Penguins aren't invincible.

Sometimes we spend too much time looking for the "hot team" at the end of the regular season and not enough time simply looking for the best teams. When the 2010-11 Bruins won the Cup they lost 10 of their last 18 games. The 2009-10 Blackhawks, one of the best teams in the NHL over the past 10 years, were barely over .500 over their final 16 heading into the playoffs.

The conference is there for the taking and the Canadiens have the ability to take it -- even if they're not playing their best hockey at the moment.

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