One common theme that comes up is that the Montreal Canadiens having success in the post-season makes the regular season meaningless. Because they were 18th in the NHL in points, and now in the final four, what was the point of 56 games?
There are a lot of things wrong with that thought process. First of all, league standings are meaningless in divisional play. Each division has a certain number of points to give out, with three-point games that can add to that total. If a division has a number of good teams, then they’ll have a number of bad teams as well.
There were seven NHL teams from three different divisions worse than the worst North Division team. The West, with the two best teams in the league had three (Anaheim, San Jose, and Los Angeles). The Central had Detroit and Columbus, while the East had Buffalo and New Jersey. Colorado, Vegas, Carolina, and Pittsburgh had a lot of points, yes, but also had games against some of the worst teams in the league.
The North Division may very well be more balanced, but I don’t think you can definitively say which division is best or worst, and Montreal hasn’t looked out of place against Vegas.
The other argument against the Canadiens is how they struggled down the stretch. Again, that requires context. After being forced off the ice due to a positive COVID-19 test in late March, they had to play 25 games in a span of 43 days between March 30 and May 12.
Those 25 games were tied with the Boston Bruins for the most games over that span, with the Dallas Stars playing 24. The difference between Montreal and the other teams is that the most games played by any other North Division team in that span was 20. That’s almost 12 percent more rest. Edmonton and Winnipeg played 19. Boston also didn’t have to leave the Eastern time zone.
That’s a competitive disadvantage, plain and simple. Despite that, they weren’t actually as bad as their record indicated. In those 25 games, per Natural Stat Trick, they were ninth in shots at goal, at 53.2%. Their expected goals for at five-on-five was 12th in the league at 50.5%. That stretch also was when they dealt with injuries from Carey Price, Shea Weber, Brendan Gallagher, and Ben Chiarot, among others.
How did the Canadiens do, then, in their first 31 games? Well, they looked like a top-four team. They were second in the NHL in shots at goal share, scoring chance share, and expected goal share. They were fourth in their high-danger chances share.
So when they had a schedule that was on par with their opponents, they were a borderline elite team. When they had their busiest period, they were still in the top half of the league.
There is a reason why people around the Canadiens were optimistic before their series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. There is a reason why they didn’t think they would get steamrolled by Vegas. The Canadiens were a team that, over their first 31 games — over half the season — were top-five in terms of key metrics.
This isn’t a team that snuck into the playoffs getting lucky on their way to the third round. This is a team that had ups and downs throughout the season finding their best game after getting a breather from their unprecedented schedule.
The regular season showed us who the Canadiens could be. The playoffs showed us who they really were.