MONTREAL - General manager Bob Gainey gives the Montreal a passing grade for the first half of the NHL season.
But he warned on Monday the team will need to improve in some key areas, notably faceoffs, to avoid missing the playoffs for a second year in a row. The Canadiens, who were picked by most pundits to miss the post-season, reached the halfway point of their schedule in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with a 20-13-8 record.
That's three points fewer than the team had at the same point a year ago, but that team crumbled in the second half, while Gainey is confident this year's team will hold up.
He said a year ago, the team's power play, penalty killing and goaltending were best in the league, despite taking too many penalties and allowing far too many shots on goal.
This year, the power play remains No. 1 in the 30-team league, the penalty killing has plunged to 25th place, while the goaltending is 12th best, but the Canadiens have cut down on penalties and shots-against.
They have also played better at even strength, which was a major shortcoming last season.
"Some of those areas have balanced out so there isn't this huge contradiction in results and performance," Gainey said. "I like what I see better.
"Do I think it's enough? I think we'll need to be a better team when we meet in April than we are today if we're going to be talking about the playoffs."
He would like to see the penalty killing improve and wants them to be better at getting the puck out of their own zone.
An area he singled out was faceoffs, where the Canadiens rank 27th in the league with a 48.1 per cent success rate. Detroit leads at 54.3 per cent.
In a 5-4 overtime loss to Washington on Saturday, checking centre Kyle Chipchura was beaten cleanly on a faceoff during a penalty kill and Capitals star Alex Ovechkin fired the puck into the net in a heartbeat.
Gainey warned that if his defensive centres don't improve, he may deal for a strong faceoff man before the league trading deadline in February.
Currently, team captain Saku Koivu ranks 12th best in the league with a 55 per cent win rate, but Tomas Plekanec is at 45.8 per cent, Maxim Lapierre 49.4 per cent and Chipchura 43.8 per cent. Veteran Bryan Smolinski, who is due to return soon from a knee injury, is at 48.7 per cent.
"We can't finish games with 30 or 35 per cent of faceoffs won," Gainey said. "If the players here can't solve it, I'll look at adding or replacing a player here with one who can win important faceoffs.
"It's an important part of the game. Stronger, more experienced teams find your weakness and rip them apart so that you're exposed, and this is a place that's a weakness for us. We need it fixed so at some point maybe it will become an advantage."
Oddly, coach Guy Carbonneau and assistants Kirk Muller and Doug Jarvis are all former centres who were strong in the face-off circle.
"Carbo works most with us on faceoffs, Kirk also, and we talk with the veteran guys," said Chipchura. "As a team, it's something we recognize that we need to improve on."
An ongoing issue through the first half was how the Canadiens were better on the road at 13-6-3. At home, they were 7-7-5.
"I have a belief that you can fix a home record easier than a road record," Gainey said. "The team that doesn't play well on the road is one that has some fear, some anxiety about playing in another team's arena.
"I feel better about our chances to improve the situation we have now.
Gainey also had kind words for Carbonneau, who he said has improved from his rookie season in 2006-07.
"I see a person who is more comfortable, more confident, who has had to face some of the difficult situations a coach does and is developing his own way to address them," he said.
"I get a message that the players understand him. They know what his demands are and I feel they're in it together, which is good."
Gainey added that rookie goalie Carey Price, who shone early in the season but who has struggled in his last three starts, may spend some time with AHL Hamilton later this month to stay sharp.
The Canadiens begin the second half at home against the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night before heading out on a four-game road trip.
Smolinski and Steve Begin (shoulder) are expected to sit out another game, but a decision will be made on Tuesday whether defenceman Patrice Brisebois will return after missing 11 games with a shoulder injury.