1. Playing a desperate team
The Tampa Bay Lightning have a shot at making the playoffs and need all the points they can get. The Montreal Canadiens were not only able to match their opponent’s intensity last night, but outplay them for most of the game.
Despite three wins over the Ottawa Senators in recent weeks, the Habs had put up less-than-convincing efforts against the lowly Detroit Red Wings and a Carolina Hurricanes team on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Those games had many concerned that the Habs not only wouldn’t be able to add enough points to claim the division title, but pointed to some flaws in the makeup of the team.
Now, with a four-game winning streak that started with a showdown for the Atlantic lead against Ottawa last Saturday through to an encouraging overtime win over a team that needed the two points more, it seems that this team will be just fine.
2. Having Tampa Bay’s number
Beating Tampa Bay is nothing new for the Canadiens, as the back-and-forth rivalry that has seen lengthy win streaks for both sides in recent years has swung decidedly in the Habs’ favour once again.
The win was their sixth in the last seven meetings dating back to the start of last season, with the only blemish being a game they took a point from: a 4-3 overtime loss back in December. The teams will clash again this month, as the Habs play them one more time in their final home game before the playoffs begin.
3. Offensive pressure
The Canadiens achieved the victory last night with some good offensive-zone pressure that kept Tampa Bay’s skilled players away from Montreal’s end. They took advantage of the times when Victor Hedman had to rest on the bench to pepper Andrei Vasilevskiy with shots, forcing the goaltender to make 34 saves.
The increased possession didn’t exactly translate into offence, but over a seven-game playoff series that relentless attack will get rewarded and give the Habs a significant edge.
4. Brendan Gallagher agitating once again
For the majority of the season, Gallagher had been playing away from his usual spot near the crease, using inferior tools like his wrist shot to try to make an impact. The result was usually a routine save for the goaltender and return to the bench for a player who scored at nearly a 30-goal pace last season.
Now, he’s become a big part of the Habs’ improved offensive game by getting comfortable with the area around the net (though perhaps not quite so comfortable when sat upon by a Lightning defender). The Habs controlled 72% of shot attempts while he was on the ice and up to his usual antics around the crease; the highest mark of any player on the ice.
5. The Beaulieu-Emelin pairing
At the beginning of Thursday’s game, when the duo of Jeff Petry and Brandon Davidson taking the ice pointed to a pairing of Nathan Beaulieu and Alexei Emelin, my initial reaction was one of apprehension. Placing the two defenders who have struggled with consistency the most, especially on the defensive side of the puck, seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.
Before that disaster could take place, the pair were part of an incredible goal against the Florida Panthers, with Emelin starting a three-way passing play with a spin move near the blue line. As the night went on, the duo only continued to impress.
With a tougher matchup against a better team last night, the pair still looked good.
The solution from Claude Julien to what had been quite glaring defensive errors from both players was to limit them to mostly offensive duty, starting about 70% of their end-zone shifts inside Tampa Bay’s blue line. The production wasn’t there as it had been in the first game, but the possession was strong, and that’s very good news for two players who were looking lost at various points in recent weeks.
6. A playoff-calibre penalty kill
The Lightning had two chances on the man advantage, and didn’t register a shot on goal on either. Since Claude Julien took over the team in mid-February the Habs have allowed just five goals while down a man.
A little mentioned aspect of the penalty kill is how rarely it’s had to be deployed. In Julien’s second tenure, the Habs have been forced to play four-versus-five for just over 63 minutes in 19 games, which is the lowest amount of the league’s 30 teams in that time (the Dallas Stars are next at 79 minutes).
Andrew Shaw’s more disciplined approach to the game is a significant factor in those reduced minutes. On at least two occasions, Julien has been seen on the bench reprimanding Shaw for yelling at the officials since he’s come on, and that seems to be doing the trick to prevent the ill-timed selfish penalties and tantrums that Shaw displayed in his time under Michel Therrien.
7. Lehkonen-Shaw duo
Shaw’s overall game has drastically improved in the second half. He has channelled his energies into a dogged forecheck rather than chasing players around the ice looking for a big hit.
In fact, he’s playing more like Artturi Lehkonen. Lehkonen jumped right into the NHL playing the type of game the Habs were hoping to get when Shaw was signed to his six-year deal. The reverse of the rookie-veteran relationship seems to have played a role in aligning Shaw’s play in a more effective direction.
The type of game they provide together is the perfect fit for Alex Galchenyuk. He can simply concern himself with getting into position to shoot the puck that they work to free along the boards. Once he adjusts to that new role, the offence should start to return.
8. Alexander Radulov has refuelled the tanks
It was looking like the high-energy style he played was causing Alexander Radulov to run out of steam over the final third of the season. He had lost his ability to stay attached to the puck at all times in the offensive zone, and offensive-zone forays were dying on his stick with regularity.
As the playoffs have drawn closer, however, it seems that Radulov has returned to his previous form. That’s a relief for a team that relied so much on his play to get through a tough stretch of key injuries that had him as the MVP of the team until Carey Price took that title back.
9. Carey Price is pretty good
And how effectively he’s taken it back. Unless you can bounce a puck off a net-front body or two or execute a quick cross-ice one-timer, you’re very unlikely to beat the Habs’ starter these days.
He’s fighting to see pucks through traffic, not allowing the weak goals that plagued him at the turn of the new year, and has fully restored his team’s confidence in his abilities.
He’s also been virtually automatic on the NHL’s biggest night:
#Habs Carey Price on Saturdays since 2014-15— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) April 2, 2017
.944 Save %
10. Looking good in the Atlantic
With solid goaltending, stabilized defending, strong possession, and a bit of goal-scoring, the Habs are on the verge of clinching the Atlantic Division title. They can look back at the key three-games-in-eight-days series against the Ottawa Senators as the main reason why they have that opportunity, and their dominance over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Mike Babcock era that prevented the late-season charge from the young team from threatening to overtake them.
The Canadiens can secure the division with a win of any sort in Florida tomorrow, getting them to the 100-point plateau for the third time in four years, and rendering the final three games of the season meaningful only in league placement for the entry draft order.
With the title essentially secured, the Canadiens can use their remaining games to rest some veterans and reward some of the players who have had good seasons with the St. John’s IceCaps with call-ups to take their place. In the final week, we should see not only a start from Charlie Lindgren (maybe tomorrow in Florida), but perhaps Jacob de la Rose and his surprising offence this season, Charles Hudon and his unsurprising offence, or even Max Friberg, who has put together a solid campaign as captain of the AHL team.
The 2016-17 regular season has been a success after a disastrous finish to last year. Now the Canadiens can begin to prepare for the New York Rangers in a first-round playoff series.