It seems like many fans didn't realize it, but the Montreal Canadiens outplayed the Colorado Avalanche at home on Tuesday. They outplayed when the score was tied, when it was within a goal, and even when they were up. They were more dangerous on the powerplay, better shorthanded, and have accomplished something that has eluded them all season.
What is that accomplishment? They've outplayed opponents at even strength for the last four straight games.
Montreal outplayed their opponents for the first three games of the season, then failed to string together more than back to back good games until the last four. Even back to back good games had eluded from from November 29th to March 1st, when they finally put up two good showings in a row against the Penguins and Maple Leafs.
Montreal's season can be divided essentially into three segments.
That middle section of 46 games would have put almost any team out of the playoffs. A far shorter skid put the Canucks way out, caused half the team to ask for a trade, and saw their competitive window close for the foreseeable future. Luckily for the Canadiens, they have a goaltender named Carey Price, who was balls to the wall fantastic during that stretch. The added benefit of Max Pacioretty scoring 24 goals over that time kept the Habs not only afloat, but near the top of the Eastern Conference.
Since the Olympic break, somehow Michel Therrien has awoken from his slumber, and has his team outplaying opponents on a consistent basis. Since the loss to the Red Wings coming out of the Olympic break, the Canadiens have been playing at the level of an elite team, and that includes a schedule packed with contenders like San Jose, Los Angeles, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Anaheim. There were weaker clubs in that timeframe as well, with the Leafs and Sabres being the weakest possession teams in the league, but the fact is that Montreal is on their most dominant run of games all season.
In fact, the Canadiens have been so dominant of late that they've been winning games in spite of an absolutely brutal run on the percentages, with a PDO 97.1 over their last 10 games. And they've been doing it with a powerplay that's been cold as ice since December, running at just 14% efficiency, and their penalty killing hasn't been so hot in the new year either. This is a team that could go on an incredible hot streak should the percentages swing in their favour.
There are still problems
This is still a small sample, and unless it continues I don't think anyone should get too excited about the team's chances this year.
Therrien is still Therrien, meaning that he's still forcing the issue of keeping bad defensemen in important positions, playing Francis Bouillon on the top pairing with P.K. Subban instead of moving up a player like Tinordi, or calling up Nathan Beaulieu, but that's still a much better option than Murray.
Vanek's utilization, forcing him to play on the right side, isn't working. His hat trick against the Avalanche was excellent, but two goals came on the powerplay and another happened because Giguere is flat out awful. At even strength with Desharnais and Vanek together, the team was outshot 13-4, hemmed in their own zone on every shift, only able to counter attack.
It's all well and good to say that Plekanec plays a defensive role and therefore Vanek doesn't fit with him, but in reality, Vanek was getting twice the offensive opportunities with Plekanec that he is with Desharnais.
The other problem is that with Josh Gorges out, the defense seems to be a little scrambly. We saw this against Ottawa and Colorado, that players are running around chasing the puck a little bit. This is leading to them allowing nearly 20 even strength scoring chances against per game, which is almost twice what you want to allow.
But these are little problems in the scheme of things. The defense will tighten up as Jarred Tinordi's confidence increases, and as Mike Weaver learns his teammates' tendencies. In three more weeks, Bouillon will be out of the lineup in favour of Josh Gorges, which makes Subban's life significantly easier as well.
Even with curious roster decisions, this roster may simply be too stacked for Therrien's backwards philosophy to make them awful, which means we may be in for some good hockey in April.