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The Montreal Canadiens have become a contender by foregoing the physical game

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A results-based analysis reveals that the Montreal Canadiens have fared much better in the last five years by leaving the aggressive play to their opponents.

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

We often talk about puck possession, and its established importance in determining a team's long-term success. Most fans couldn't possibly care any less about Corsi and possession, and are only interested in their team winning.

Looking at the 447 games the Habs played from October 7, 2010, to December 12, 2015, I broke the games down into groups: regulation and overtime wins and losses, and games that were ultimately decided in a shootout.

Total Games

Decided in Regulation/Overtime

Decided in Shootout

Wins

Losses

447

214

182

51

Shootout

Out of the 447 games, 51 of them ended in shootout. The result of those games is determined by a duel between skilled players, not the participants combined strength as a team unit. Looking at a few advanced stats in those games, we can see how success in a few possession categories impacted the need for a shootout. The following table tallies the number of times in those 51 games the Habs led, were equal, or trailed in scoring chances (SC), high-danger scoring chances (HSC), Corsi-for events (shot attempts, CF), and Fenwick-for events (unblocked shot attempts, FF).

Led

Even

Trailed

Scoring Chances

25

1

25

High-danger Scoring Chances

24

3

24

Corsi-for percentage

24

1

26

Fenwick-for percentage

25

2

24

As we can see, the Canadiens were just as likely to have a positive possession game as they were to have trailed their opponent in shooting events in games that have gone to a shootout in recent years. Since those games are a virtual tie no matter how you slice them, games decided in a shootout will be removed from the next stage of the analysis.

Hits

"Finishing a check" is a much-quoted strategy to wear down an opponent and help a team win. Let's see how hitting affected the Habs ability to win games.

Led

Even

Trailed

Count

123

15

258

W

L

W

L

W

L

Count

53

70

6

9

155

103

Win %

43.1%

40.0%

60.1%

The Habs had more hits than their opponents 123 times (in the 396 games of the sample). They won 53 times. In games they finished with fewer hits than their opponents (258 times in 396 games), they achieved 155 of those 214 wins; 72.4% of the Canadiens regulation and overtime wins in the last five-plus seasons have come in games they were outhit.

Because the numbers of hits are not counted the same in every arena, I decide to look if the trend would continue as the differential would grow.

Nb of time

Wins

Ratio

Differential > 3

209

130

62%

Differential > 10

91

69

76%

This only applies to the Habs results. Someone would have to run the numbers across the whole league to see if the result is the same for other teams. We can say for sure that, for the Habs, being physical is not a recipe for success. Hitting is not part of their identity, and it doesn't help them win.

Penalties

When you are chasing the opponent for the big hit, you often fall on the other side of the line. The impact penalties have on a game's outcome is pretty intuitive, because teams tend to score more goals on the power play, but let's put numbers to it.

More PIMs

Even

Fewer PIMs

Count

158

79

159

W

L

W

L

W

L

Count

73

85

40

39

101

58

Win %

46.2%

50.6%

63.5%

When the Habs took more penalties than the opposing team, they won 73 out of the 158 times, which represents only 34.1% of their total wins in this analysis. On the opposite side, they had 101 out of 214 wins — 47.2% of their wins — from games where the other team took more penalties.

Unsurprisingly, the Canadiens have a much greater chance of winning if they are disciplined. Other than interference, delay of game, and embellishment, I would say that most of the penalties are taken when your team doesn't have the puck.

Since physicality, and the infractions that often result from aggressive play, are clear hindrances to the Canadiens' ability to win, the move away from physical defenseman and a heavy fourth line to more mobile, skilled players over the last few years can partly explain why the Habs' regular season success has been improving in recent years.

I have been a big critic of Michel Therrien, but he has changed his tactics to better align with these results. I can't remember one press conference where he said that they lost a game because they were not finishing their checks, as some coaches of less successful teams seem to do on a regular basis.

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