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Still: Can the Canadiens stop getting killed by their penalty-kill?

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The Montreal Canadiens were cruising their way to a blowout victory against the Nashville Predators on Saturday night.

The team was scoring, the fans were cheering, the boys were smiling. For a few brief moments, all seemed well at the corner of De La Montagne and Avenue des Canadiens.

And then the Preds went on the power-play.

Within six minutes, Matt Duchene had scored twice on the man-advantage. Four minutes after that, he completed the natural hat-trick to turn the Bell Centre from a cauldron of noise to a building quivering with anxiety.

It turned the final couple of minutes into what European football fans call squeaky-bum time.

The Habs held on and the Ole’s were heard with just over a minute left in the game. But their work down a man will be forced to confront a Herculean challenge when they face the Washington Capitals tomorrow night.

Alexander the Great

“If someone figured that out already, they would have a Nobel Prize probably.”

That was the quote of the day from practice this morning from Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen when asked about how one goes about stopping Alexander Ovechkin from his office on the left side of the power-play. Allen will return between the pipes to face Ovechkin and company tomorrow after missing the past four games with a concussion.

The Russian sniper has been on a tear out of the gates this season with 15 goals and 30 points in 19 games. Curiously, the Capitals power-play has not been it’s surgical self. Yet. Washington are ranked 22nd in the league with the man-advantage. The absence of passing maestro Nicklas Backstrom with a hip injury doesn’t help. But there are still four-fifths of what has been a dominant power-play for the better part of five years now.

And they are going up against the 29th ranked penalty-kill in the entire NHL tomorrow night.

Hemorrhaging goals

Their league rank might be the prettiest part of the Montreal Canadiens penalty-kill.

Through 20 games, the Habs have allowed a power-play goal against in half of their games. They’ve allowed more than one goal against on the penalty-kill in 30% of their games so far. What was such a strength for the team in their run to the Cup final five months ago has cost them dearly so far this year.

“I think it’s just being on the same page,” said Jake Evans after practice this morning. “Knowing when there’s a loose puck, we can jump on that when everyone’s doing the right thing. When there’s one guy hesitating or a couple guys hesitating in this league with some of these power-plays, they can expose you and obviously that’s what happened last game. So we’re trying to fix that. I think it’s gotten a lot better and guys are getting on the same page now. But you know just those little things can really hurt you.”

Joel Edmundson’s return should help. The big defenceman has been back skating at practice and is set for a return in the next week to 10 days. Allen being back in nets is a comfort as well. But the Canadiens are in must-win mode on this three-game road trip if they have any aspirations of turning things around this season. And allowing momentum-sapping goals on the penalty-kill will be hard to come back from.

Better but still not good enough

“I thought lately (we’ve) been better on the pressure,” said head coach Dominique Ducharme this afternoon. “Giving less time to the shooters, especially on the flanks. Applying pressure up the ice, that’s one of our strengths. In the zone, reading (the) pressure and time and doing that.”

So what happened against the Predators in the third period on Saturday night?

“I think the last game was bad execution in the neutral zone on the first goal and a bad read in the d-zone (on the second goal). But overall I thought it’s better but we still need to be getting even better than that, for sure.”

While it hasn’t looked nearly as bad, the Montreal Canadiens have still allowed four goals in their last five games down a man. But hockey’s a funny little game. On paper, the Capitals and their power-play look like a bad matchup for the Habs and their penalty-kill. The last time the Canadiens looked particularly outmatched on paper was against the Calgary Flames. They responded with a 4-2 victory on home ice.

So can the Habs pitch a shutout down a man against Washington? Sure, it’s possible.

But don’t bet on it.

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