Between 2013 and 2015, the Canadiens ranked between 22nd and 25th in score-adjusted possession (Corsi).
So far this season, the team is ranked fourth in the league in the metric which correlates best with future wins.
Like any other sport, at its core, hockey is a very simple discipline. You identify habits that drive results, then practice relentlessly to improve the skills that facilitate those habits. If you keep honing your game by working hard in the right direction, then results are sure to follow.
The Habs' success this season, as measured in both traditional and advanced statistics, can be attributed to savvy signings by Marc Bergevin (Tomas Fleischmann and Jeff Petry), by the progression of Alex Galchenyuk and Nathan Beaulieu, and by the contributions of newcomers such as Mike Condon, Sven Andrighetto and Greg Pateryn.
But that would be overlooking another positive development: the fact that, now more than ever, the Canadiens are playing the right way with the puck.
I've written extensively in the past (here, here and here) about how poor the Habs were at breaking out with control of the puck. Between 2013 and the early weeks of this season, we used to see a large gap between the defensemen and the forwards and a lack of puck support, which would results in a large number of "off the glass and out" type clearing plays.
Then the five Montreal skaters would spend most of their shift skating their tails off, trying to get the puck back. It's not an ideal setup if you want to score goals, and in the long term, not an effective defensive strategy either.
The old philosophy was to avoid risk at all costs, but in the NHL, safe is death. What we see now is a team willing to take reasonable chances to make a play, and players hustling hard to be at the right places at the right time.
Below are three great clips from Saturday's game against the Carolina Hurricanes, and what a refreshing change:
1) Close Support On Zone Exit
Carolina misses the net with a shot attempt, and Montreal's fourth-line forwards (Daniel Carr, Brian Flynn and Christian Thomas) are already below the faceoff dot to recover the puck and support each other on the zone exit.
Nathan Beaulieu, instead of sitting back, proactively joins the rush and provides an option on the far side. Carr picks up speed across the blue line and puts a puck on net.
Controlled exit, controlled entry, shot on net and an offensive zone faceoff. If your fourth line can put generate these opportunities on a regular basis, it really puts the rest of your team in a good position.
2) Risk Management
Whenever a coach allows his players to use the middle of the ice on the breakout, there is always a legitimate fear of a bad pass resulting in a turnover or a bouncing puck creating a scoring chance for the opposition.
But using the middle of the ice as a second option opens up a lot of opportunities, and can serve as a "release valve" when the opposing team sends in all three forwards on the forecheck. Beaulieu's aggressive positioning on the far side looks risky, but actually provides a lifeline for Dale Weise, who is in trouble against an aggressive Carolina forecheck. Sometimes sitting back can be a lot more dangerous, and this is one of those times.
3) Creating Opportunities
Here we have a very similar clip to the first one. It's again Carr-Flynn-Thomas who start the play, creating a controlled exit and then chipping the puck into the offensive zone.
While I happen to believe that Flynn is in the bottom third of the NHL in terms of finishing skills, and that Thomas -who was a 50-goal scorer in the OHL - is unlikely to become a top-line scoring threat in Montreal, both players have the foot speed, anticipation and puck skills to out-race and outplay a good number of NHLers in the first 150 feet of the rink, a very handy thing to have on a fourth line. This is a stark contrast to when the Habs' bottom three was populated with players such as Manny Malhotra, Brandon Prust, Travis Moen or Ryan White.
The upsides are readily apparent here. Flynn makes a great play to beat two Carolina defenders, then feeds the puck to Max Pacioretty, who just came on for Carr, for a high-danger scoring chance in the slot. Jeff Petry then gets a follow-up shot toward the net from the point.
This is the very definition of great teamwork - not only does Flynn set up his team's best scorer, but he and Thomas' ability to move the puck from the D-zone into the O-zone means that Montreal's top line gets to conserve energy and get on offense right away. It's a gift that keeps on giving.
On The Same Page
A team whose first and fourth lines can play the same way is a very dangerous team indeed, especially if its style is suited to its strengths.
If the Habs can continue to move the puck laterally on the breakout and use their speed across the opposing blue line, not only will they be fun to watch, but they'll end the year with a very healthy number in the Wins column as well.
Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.