The decision just before the start of the season to swap the special teams assignments between the existing assistant coaches seemed like an odd decision. While the move hasn't done much to help the power play, Dan Lacroix, with assistance from Clément Jodoin, has helped to create one of the most effective penalty-killing units in the NHL.
The possession style that has been adopted my Michel Therrien and co. has the Montreal Canadiens as one of the top four teams in five-versus-five shot-attempts-for percentage (at 53.3%), and that has translated to the man disadvantage, as well.
Montreal has a league-best (as of the end of games on Thursday, January 21) Corsi-for percentage of 16.4% while outnumbered on the ice, after being 18th in the NHL in that statistic over the whole of the 2014-15 campaign.
The performance is even more impressive when you look at those attempted shots that come from the main scoring area of the ice. The Canadiens have a high-danger-scoring-chances-for percentage of 21.8%; getting one high-quality chance to score for about every four they allow on the penalty kill. That's good enough for third in the NHL — just behind the Boston Bruins, but far off the impressive 31.6% of Mike Babcock's Toronto Maple Leafs — compared to the Habs' 12th-highest five-on-five mark (51.1%) for those quality scoring chances.
When it comes to the main job of the penalty kill — holding the other team from scoring while your player sits in the box — the Canadiens are number six in goals allowed per 60 minutes of short-handed time.
Scoring goals at the opposite end while playing at reduced strength has been the story of the penalty kill this season. The Canadiens have eight short-handed markers through 47 games, ahead of the next-best four teams who all have six apiece.
The numbers work out to a scoring pace of 2.0 goals per 60 minutes of penalty-kill time, or one goal for every 15 minor penalties taken, and is quite a bit better than the 1.7 pace of the Minnesota Wild. In fact, that 2.0 mark while playing four-versus-five is about the same as their league-average five-versus-five mark of 2.1 goals per sixty minutes, and better than the 1.7 rate the Habs have managed since December 3.
Leading the charge in the scoring department has been Paul Byron, who is tied for second in the NHL with three short-handed goals, and in sole possession of the points lead when adding his two primary assists.
Assists have actually been quite rare on the Canadiens short-handed goals, as only three of the eight credit a player with a secondary pass (with Jeff Petry claiming all three).
That means the majority of those goals are coming off quick transition from defence to an offensive rush, with few passes on the way to the net, and that could very well be the reason why the penalty kill has been relatively lethal compared to the even-strength play.
With forwards taking the puck and launching a rush, they have the chance to outrace opposition blue-liners to the other end of the ice and make a play right in front of the net. With the forechecking style preferred at five-versus-five, and even as the default strategy on the power play, the short-handed rushes are the only game situation where the Canadiens can use their team speed to create offence, and they've shown they're quite capable of converting.
That conversion rate will be tested now that Byron has been sidelined with a lower-body injury, meaning Habs fans will be deprived of his nightly breakaway.
Last season's dynamic duo of Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec, who led the team with five and four short-handed points, respectively, haven't been able to rekindle that prowess this season.
Pacioretty has just one point, scoring an unassisted goal on October 24 to get the first short-handed tally of the year, while Plekanec has yet to register a four-versus-five point, despite being one of the most-used forwards on the penalty kill. It will be interesting to see if Torrey Mitchell, who has produced well on the man disadvantage in his first full season with the Habs, can combine with one of Pacioretty or Plekanec to create a dangerous threat of a counter-attack in Byron's absence.
All stats from WAR On Ice