What Went Wrong: Montreal Canadiens

On a certain level, 2018-2019 wasn’t that unkind to the Montreal Canadiens. They finished the regular season with 96 points but still missed the playoffs, matching the NHL record as the highest point total for a non-qualifying team since last year’s Florida Panthers and the 2014-2015 Boston Bruins.

The Columbus Blue Jackets snuck into the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with 98 points, while the Carolina Hurricanes had the first spot with 99 points.

The 2018-2019 playoff miss also marked the first time the team missed back-to-back chances at the post-season since 2000-2001.

So, what went wrong?

The Canadiens scored 249 goals, four more than the Hurricanes and nine fewer than the Blue Jackets. They boasted three players with over 20 goals – Brendan Gallagher, Max Domi and Tomas Tatar – and a dozen players with at least 10 goals.

Gallagher’s 33 goals were a career-high, two more than last year’s total, and he was a plus-10 player after finishing last season with a minus-13. He was a consistent contributor in five-on-five situations, with just four of his goals coming on the power play. Last season, eight of his 31 were on the man-advantage. Gallagher also recorded career-highs in shots on goal.

Domi likewise recorded career-highs in a host of categories, including goals, assists, points, shots on goal, penalty minutes, power play goals, and shooting percentage.

But it was Tatar who surprised many, achieving 25 goals and a career-high 58 points. The 28-year-old came over in the Max Pacioretty trade in September of 2018 and fit the Habs’ system like a glove. He was a career-high plus-21, which is saying something when he was supposed to be the afterthought. Nick Suzuki was the highlight of that trade for Montreal, with Tatar somewhat overlooked. No longer.

Defensively, the Canadiens allowed 236 goals against. Again, not a big deal. The Tampa Bay Lightning allowed 222 goals against, although they scored so much the differential slipped enormously in their favour.

For the Habs, the goal differential was still a plus-13 – the only positive goal differential among non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference and indeed the entire league. The outside-looking-in Coyotes were seven points shy of the second wild card spot in the Western Conference and they were a minus-10 in the differential.

Goalie Carey Price was not at his best, it must be said. He posted a 2.49 goals against average, just a hair over his career average, and a .918 save percentage. That’s better than 2017-2018 by a fair margin, but he can play better and has played better. He won a respectable 35 games in 64 starts.

So Montreal scored more goals than it allowed but couldn’t slip into the post-season because the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets were just that much more proficient at pushing the needle.

And look, there’s a lot to like. Jesperi Kotkaniemi was a thrill in his debut season, scoring 11 goals in 79 games. The team is young enough, with the average forward’s age 26.4 and the average defenceman clocking at just about a year older. General manager Marc Bergevin will have to deal Domi some cash next summer and, you have to admit, he tried to offer sheet Sebastian Aho. Goalie Keith Kinkaid is just the sort of player to give Price a break in goal.

That’s something, right?

What went wrong in 2018-2019 was the simple matter of not being able to turn enough games into wins when it mattered most. The Habs have scoring and one of the best netminders in the league, so they should make things interesting each and every season. But as divisional play gets tougher and the likes of Columbus and Carolina pester the standings, Montreal will have to find more ways to push ahead.

Photo credit: NHL.com

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