MONTREAL — The Canadiens boast the best road record in the Eastern Conference, checking in at 11-2-2 after beating the New York Islanders 5-2 Thursday night.
But the Canadiens’ reputation as road warriors will be put to the test next week as they travel to Pittsburgh on Tuesday and then Boston on Wednesday.
The Canadiens, the Penguins and the Bruins are the three teams with a legitimate shot at first place in the Eastern Conference ,and these two games could determine where the Canadians finish in the regular-season standings.
The deciding factor going down the stretch will be the teams’ ability to correct or — at the very least — hide their flaws.
A lack of size might be perceived as one of the Canadiens’ flaws, but the team has fared well against the big, bad Bruins and Philadelphia’s Broad Street Bullies. There’s room for improvement in faceoffs from a group of Canadiens centres who are often overmatched in size. But the biggest issue facing the Canadiens is discipline and what to do after the team takes a penalty.
The Canadiens lost to Buffalo Tuesday because (a) P.K. Subban took a bad penalty and (b) the Sabres scored on the subsequent power play.
The Canadiens rank 24th in the league with an average of 13.6 penalty minutes a game, just behind the Bruins at 13.3. The difference between the two teams is that the Canadiens rank 21st in penalty-killing and have given up 22 power-play goals, while the Bruins have the best penalty-killing record in the league and have surrendered only eight goals.
The penalty-kill is frustrating to coach Michel Therrien because the Canadiens had the second-best PK in the league last season.
“We have to make some improvement,” Therrien said. “We didn’t change much, but there are a lot of things that go into being successful on the PK. It starts with work, but you need big stops from the goalie, you need to block some shots and you have to know when to apply pressure.”
Therrien isn’t the only coach wondering about a change in fortunes. Boston’s Claude Julien is wondering about his team’s ability to hold the lead in the third period.
The Canadiens came from behind to beat the Bruins on March 3, and since then the Bruins have lost three other games after taking a lead into the third period. This is a team that went 32-0 last season when it had the lead after two periods.
You can look back to another game involving the Canadiens to see the Penguins’ Achilles heel. On March 2, the Penguins needed overtime to beat the Canadiens 7-6. That game pitted Carey Price against Marc-André Fleury, and while they are tied for the lead for most wins by a goaltender with 16, they can both have off nights.
The Penguins have a margin of error because they have a high-powered offence led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and defenceman Kris Letang, whose health is in question. The Penguins lead the NHL with an average of 3.48 goals a game and have the second-best power play, which covers up some of the warts.
By the way, it should be noted that the boring, defensive-minded Canadiens rank fifth in goals per game at 3.17.
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