Bare with me folks, this is long and detailed thesis...
Canadiens defenseman Mike Komisarek is not scheduled to be make a return to the lineup tonight in Carolina, but his pencilling in is imminant. Thursday against Philadelphia or Saturday's Buffalo game are more likely targets. As he is a large piece the Canadiens puzzle in more ways than one, the team can afford to be patient with his return.
It has been 15 games since Komisarek went down, and the club has employed a tigher style of defense since Komisarek was hurt in a 6-1 loss to Boston. Two games prior, a 6-3 loss to the Leafs, pointed to a need for cleaning up a messy defense and reeling in of discipline gone afoul.
The loss of Komisarek, who brings leadership, along with a high number of hits and blocked shots per game, has oddly affected the way the Canadiens approach the game. The team has actually tightened things up without out his contribution - all the while counting more often on minutes played by Patrice Brisebois, Ryan O' Byrne, and Mathieu Dandenault.
With an added focus to employing stricter coverage, Komisarek's absence has strangely affected the team's offence. In the 14 games Komisarek played in, the team netted 46 goals. In 15 games without him, they have counted only 35.
Consequently, while Komisarek was dressed, they allowed 38 goals in 14 games for a GAA of 2.71. In the 15 since his injured, that total has been cut dramatically to only 30 goals in 15 games for an average goals against of 2.00.
The general consensus on the Canadiens season so far is that it is not playing up to par with last season's surprising performance overall. The major difference, perhaps the only difference, has been a powerplay that has tanked, going from first to close to last in ranking. Theories for such a decline abound, but that storyline is camouflaging the recent upgrades made defensively.
It hasn't been pointed out much, but in the area of goals against, the Canadiens have improved that facet while getting worse in scoring overall.
Currently, the Canadiens are fifth in the NHL in goals against average with a mark of 2.45. Last season, they ranked 14th, at 2.79. Last season, bolstered by a 78 power play goal output, the Canadiens offence finished with 257 goals scored, second only to Ottawa, who had scored one goal more.
Last season, they averaged 3.13 goals per game, and this season, with a fluttering PP, they rank 13th, with an average of 2.63 goals per game. At this pace, they would be projected to score 216 goals over 82 games, a drop of 41 goals. In cutting down their goals allowed this season, they are on target to drop from 229 allowed, to 201, a decrease of 28 goals.
During the 2007-08 campaign, the Canadiens performed better as the season progressed. They started well and hit their stride come January before finishing the year out on a strong note. This season's performance has been more deceptive, in that by many appearances and perceptions, the team is judged to be less performing.
After 29 games, their record of 16-8-5 for 37 points gives a 1.27 points per game ratio. At that clip, across 82 games, the Canadiens would finish with 104 points, the exact same total as last season.
In past years, a deadly powerplay was thought to make up for an absymal 5 on 5 game. The team made improvements in this area last season, and the trend has continued this year. In 2007-08, the Canadiens have scored 85 goals and allowed 75. At even strength, they have scored 69 and given up 51, a plus 18 clip over 29 games.
While that stat is impressive taken on it's own, it points out that the penalty killing unit is taking a beating compared to the power play efficiency. Almost a third of the goals allowed by the Canadiens, 24 of 75, have come with a man short. Montreal has scored only 16 PP goals in 29 games, 8 less than their opponants. The PK unit ranks 13th in the league this season, with an 82.1% rate. Last season, it ranked 15th, with an 82.5 rate, so the blame obviously cannot be placed on the PK.
Thirteen games into the season, the lack of power play proficiency was yet to be a headline story. Having scored 12 goals in 13 games on the PP, only minor rumblings were heard, as 5 of those 12 came in two games against Toronto. The Canadiens had to that point, scored power play goals in 8 of 13 games, and their ratio was dead on for 78 goals in 82 games at last season's rate.
Could the timing of game 14, and the absence of Komisarek be purely coincidental with the decline of the power play? Since that game, the Canadiens have tallied only 4 goals in 15 games, including a four game stretch where the PP contributed no goals at all. In the 15 games Komisarek has not played in, where the Canadiens began a stricter focus on team defence, they have not scored power play goals in 11 of them. Here's a breakdown, before and after Komisarek. The asterisks denote losses:
Game 2 Toronto S.Kostitsyn, S.Kostitsyn, Lang
Game 4 Boston Kovalev
Game 5 Phoenix Lang
Game 7 Anaheim* Tanguay
Game 8 Carolina Tanguay
Game 9 Minnesota Markov
Game 11 Columbus Lang Brisebois
Game 13 Toronto* Lang Plekanec
Game 16 Carolina* Lang
Game 19 Ottawa Koivu
Game 27 Atlanta Markov
Game 28 Tampa* Brisebois
In Komisarek's 15 game absence, the penalty kill has remained on par with last season's ratio. Over the first 14 games, at closer glance, the PK unit was not functioning very well compared to what has gone on in the 15 games since. Recently, it has even improved slightly, in giving up 10 goals in the last 15 games, as opposed to 14 goals in as many games prior to the injury to Komisarek. At the previous rate of a goal per game on the PK, the opposition were tallying at the same rate as the Canadiens were last season. Here again are the comparisons, before and after the 14 game mark. The penalty leading to the opponants PP goal is in brackets.
Game 2 Toronto Blake (Plekanec hooking)
Game 3 Philadelphia M. Richards (Lang holding), Gagne (Markov interference)
Game 4 Boston Savard (A. Kostitsyn holding)
Game 7 Anaheim* Perry (Kovalev tripping), Selanne (Latendresse tripping)
Game 8 Carolina Babchuck (O'Byrne D of G)
Game 10 Islanders Streit (Markov holding), Guerin (Tanguay D of G)
Game 12 Toronto* Hagman (Kostopoulos boarding major), Hagman (Tanguay hooking) Kubina (Markov boarding)
Game 14 Boston* Sturm (Latendresse interference), Sturm (Price D of G)
Game 16 St. Louis Regier (Higgins hooking)
Game 17 Carolina* Whitney (O'Byrne interference)
Game 18 Ottawa Foligno (O'Byrne holding)
Game 20 Islanders* Park (Kostopoulos unsportsmanlike), Hunter (Gorges holding stick)
Game 23 Buffalo Vanek (S. Kostitsyn slashing)
Game 24 Atlanta Hainsey (Kostopoulos hooking)
Game 25 Rangers Naslund (Begin hooking)
Game 26 New Jersey* Parise (Kovalev tripping)
Game 29 Washington* Backstrom (Gorges roughing)
Because the power play has bottomed out, the tightening up of the defense in Komisarek's absence has yet to show a marked effect. They were 9-3-2 with him, while scoring more often both at even strength and on the PP. They are since 7-5-3 without him, and the cutting down of goals against, without much powerplay help, has not contributed the desired results.
As the Canadiens had allowed a whopping 38 goals while dressing Komisarek, it was likely feared what they would allow without him. Defense was most certainly preached as a method of keeping games closer, and that is what has resulted, due in great part to the power play failures.
In 11 of the 15 games since November 15, the Canadiens have allowed a remarkable two goals or less. In a twelfth game, a third goal occured when Ryan O' Byrne shot the puck into his own empty net. In those 11 two goal games, the Canadiens record is 6-3-2, with two wins coming via the shootout. In games where they let in three or more, they are 1-2-1.
Prior to November 15, seven games wherein Montreal allowed two goals or less, produced a 6-0-1 record. Overall, they are 12-3-3 in 18 games with three SO wins when keeping opponants at two or under. In the other 11 games when allowing three or more, they are 4-5-2 with a pair of shootout wins.
Clearly, defense without offense, keeps teams in games, but does not always factor in helping them win. The inability to notch a third goal in games, has cost the Canadiens several points. Lately, it has been a trial enough just to score a second goal. In games when Montreal counts for three, the team is 12-2-2. When they manage only a pair of goals or less, they are 4-6-3 with three of the wins gained in shootouts.
In it all, it might seem inconsequencial to point all these statistical shifts to when Komisarek went down. The connections inherant in losing a defensive standout almost never manifest themselves into a lack of offense. I admit the notion seems frivolous.
It is only when, upon closer inspection, the absense of Komisarek is looked at from the point of view of the player it has impacted most, namely defense partner Andrei Markov.
Markov is the Canadiens most important player in many schemes. He logs the most minutes per game on average, working both the PP and PK units while taking regular shifts. His game has changed greatly, as he has needed to get use to different partners over the course of Komisarek's time out. He is key to the Canadiens offensive gears as well as being it's soundest rearguard in shutting down the opposition. In both duties, his transition game - both moving the puck himself or passing it up - Markov is the club's general. Remaining defenders on the team have only half his attributes.
So what happens when Markov is overtaxed and offers sub par performances?
After the first 12 games this season, the Canadiens had scored 41 goals. In that, Markov contributed 13 assists, helping to generate 38% of the clubs offense. Without Komisarek at his side, and with increased dependance on his power play usefulness, and his increased focus and committment defensively, he has managed only 6 assists in the last 15 games. He has scored 4 himself in that time, but that doesn't show his usual contribution to the team's fluid game of rapid puck movement.
While keying on limiting errors and taking less risks, could it be that Markov's efforts have robbed the team of it's identity in some manners?
The Canadiens have been a well oiled machine for a few seasons now, and presently they have learned how to play a different game. As the players are all so used to a certain chemistry and cohesion, it is not surprising in a way that one players injured can have such a dramatic effect on its sum parts.
Playing through Komisarek's injury has brought forth both discipline and cautiousness to the team, at a cost. It could be a lesson that serves them well come playoff time when penalties are fewer and games are closer.
Komisarek returns soon, which should see Markov alleviated of some pressure brought on. When things return to normal for the club's general, the team shall follow suit.
Photos courtesy of Habs Inside Out