This week’s (and last week’s) results: 5-4 W vs. NYR, 8-3 W @ OTT, 6-3 L @ MIN, 5-4 W (OT) @ WPG, 2-0 W @ CHI, 3-2 W vs. VGK.
To begin, my apologies for the hiatus last week, but sometimes life gets in the way, and, admittedly, inspiration was lacking after the last Minnesota game.
But what a difference a week makes.
Despite the calamity in the Land of the 10,000 Lakes, which not only resulted in yet another loss against a Western Conference team but also Carey Price going down with an injury, the Montreal Canadiens rebounded sharply with two very impressive victories against the Winnipeg Jets and the Chicago Blackhawks, followed by a win against the Vegas Golden Knights where they actually lived up to expectations.
Suddenly, the Habs’ future is looking, dare I say, bright?
1. The penalty kill is getting better, but now the goaltending is letting down the PK
Going 3-for-4 against the Rangers, 3-for-5 against the Senators, 3-for-4 against the Wild, 0-for-3 against the Jets … it can be forgiven if fans are starting to think that the Canadiens’ penalty kill is allowing a goal (or two or three) every game.
The last time we checked, the Canadiens ranked at or near the bottom of the league in nearly every defensive category while short-handed, except for save percentage. Now, the Canadiens have improved in every statistic. Except for save percentage.
This is a bit of a microcosm of the entire season thus far, with the Habs never quite able to align hot offence and solid defence at the same time, but it’s still a positive sign. It’s a lot easier to fix bad goaltending than it is to fix a bad penalty-kill system.
If the PK continues to trend in the right direction, and if Carey Price returns to anything resembling the Carey Price we’re all used to, we should expect to see those 5-4 wins become much more comfortable 5-2 wins.
2. The Habs should never take their foot off the gas
It’s a little cliché to say that a team should never ease up when they have the lead, yet every team in the NHL continues to do it to some degree. Fans of the Canadiens are somewhat used to seeing the team jump out to a quick lead, then sit back, absorb pressure, and use their speed to counterpunch against an overextended opponent. After all, it worked with tremendous success against Claude Julien’s Bruins in 2014.
These Habs, however, are simply not built to soak up pressure. Given the composition of their rearguard corps, any shift the defence does not have to handle the puck is a good shift.
Against the New York Rangers, the Canadiens held a +21 even-strength Corsi advantage when they left the ice at the end of the first period with a 3-0 lead. Over the first 10 minutes of the second, the Habs generated a mere five ES shot attempts (compared to 27 in the first), and when the Rangers scored at 12:20 of the second, that +21 had been cut to +13.
Montreal pushed back, taking the Corsi balance to +20 and notching what should have been an insurance goal in the process. Then they sat back again to start the third, and the Rangers again cut a +19 advantage to +13 in the first half of the final frame en route to squaring the game at four.
Phillip Danault’s heroics saved what would have been a crushing result, and the Canadiens would have had no one to blame but themselves.
Two nights later, the Canadiens appeared to have learned their lesson to some degree. Yes, the Senators pushed hard in the second to cut the deficit to 4-3, but the Habs punched back consistently over the final 30 minutes, effectively trading chances with a team that had to take more offensive risks. The end result over the final 40 minutes: an 8:3 high-danger scoring chance ratio and four goals for versus one against.
3. Going to the net doesn’t necessarily mean crashing the crease
When we hear “go to the net” there’s a tendency to synergize it with “put pucks at the net.” The implication is that players should go to the net and try for tips, screens, and rebounds. We saw this a lot during the Michel Therrien days, where players would stop almost on top of the goaltender and try to bang in loose pucks. But with modern goaltending the way it is, banging pucks against a leg pad flush along the ice isn’t the best way to go about scoring goals.
In the last two weeks the Canadiens have been going to the net, but they’ve been stopping a foot or two higher up in the slot. This gives them more time to react to a rebound, gives the puck more space to deviate course upon a deflection, and makes the player a passing target as well as a screen.
This is a hallmark of the Claude Julien system, and it’s starting to bear fruit.
4. For the first time in forever, Shea Weber is not buried in the defensive zone
Shea Weber has established a reputation in the NHL as a defensive stalwart, and coaches have deployed him accordingly. Last year, Weber was on the ice for 22.3 defensive zone faceoffs per 60 minutes, number one on the team and 13th in the league among defenders with 50+ games played.
This year, the Man Mountain finds himself in a bit of a peculiar situation. Playing with Victor Mete has allowed Weber to find himself on the ice for more offensive-zone draws. As a result, Weber finds himself fourth on the team at 19.76 defensive zone faceoffs per 60 minutes, behind Karl Alzner, Jordie Benn, and Jeff Petry amongst the regular defencemen. The Canadiens’ #6 is making the most of his new-found freedom, already logging six even-strength points in 16 games – a third of the way to his total of 18 ES points in 78 games last season.
Weber’s freedom may be fleeting though. Mete’s ice time has been declining over the last week, and in the Blackhawks game, Weber found himself partnered mostly with Jordie Benn. The Mete-Weber pairing starts 53.54% of their non-neutral zone faceoffs in the offensive zone... the Benn-Weber combo checks in at 39.39%.
5. Victor Mete’s declining ice time doesn’t make sense
Mete’s play has been a revelation so far for the Montreal Canadiens, but while the rookie dazzled to start the campaign, his play has hit a bit of a wall in recent days. When Julien cut his minutes in the Winnipeg game and took him off the first pairing against Chicago, people started to wonder whether Mete’s story was about to strike midnight.
But statistically, there’s nothing to indicate that Mete was playing himself off the first pairing. His play has declined since the first couple of weeks, but the stretch from the Rangers game to the Jets game was reasonably steady.
The Chicago and Vegas games may appear to highlight a problem, but those performances came after he was removed from the top pairing, not before. Even his apparently poor performance against Chicago was largely due to a single 0-5 Corsi shift in the third period when the ‘Hawks were pressing and the Habs were bunkering.
I think that Mete does need the presence of Weber to be an effective NHL player at the moment, but with Weber’s help, Mete hasn’t played poorly enough to justify his removal from the top pairing. Now that he’s been separated from Weber, Mete may not have the ability to standout sufficiently beside Joe Morrow or Brandon Davidson to get back to the top of the mountain.
6. Carey Price will recover.
Carey Price is not playing well. Full stop. I think we can all acknowledge that.
However, even with his issues, Price has not been helped out by his team this season. Compared to last year, the Julien-led Montreal Canadiens are giving up not only more scoring chances, but also more dangerous ones. Overall, Price is facing 15-20% more dangerous shots this year than last – mostly because of an extremely porous penalty kill.
As a result, even if Price were performing up to par, his numbers would be lower than last season just because of the workload that he has had to endure.
The team’s slow learning curve has likely eroded the star netminder’s faith in the players in front of him, and when Price doesn’t trust his defenders, he has a tendency to overplay and overanticipate, leaving him positionally unsound.
His injury might turn out to be a blessing in disguise; it gives the goaltender a chance to reset, the defence more time to acclimatize to a new system, and the offence time to get their luck back so that the team can play with leads.
7. The Atlantic is still wide open ... and the Canadiens are marching through the front door
Two weeks ago, I said that the Canadiens’ terrible start had not eliminated them from playoff contention because the Atlantic Division is wide-open this year.
Now, with the Canadiens taking 10 of a possible 12 points over their last six games, let’s have another look at how the division has evolved.
First, a look at the numbers after the games on Tuesday.
And now how those numbers have changed over the past two weeks.
The Lightning are off to a fast start, but are not very good at dictating possession play and are enjoying a PDO run. The Canadiens and Bruins are on the rise, and their ascents appear to be sustainable (note that the Habs’ PDO is still at 0.969!).
Conversely, the Red Wings and Senators are starting to fall back to Earth. The Wings were never supposed to be that good, given their roster, but the Sens are a bit of a curious case. They’re an incredibly subpar possession team, but appear to actually be rectifying that to some degree, but it’s coinciding with their PDO wave coming to an end.
Bringing up the rear, the Florida Panthers overreacted to a stretch of strong underlying play offset by bad luck and are now playing bad hockey as their PDO stabilizes. The Sabres, like the Red Wings, were never really expected to contend with their roster.
As for the Toronto Maple Leafs ... I hear Auston Matthews is injured. Have fun, Hogtown!
(All statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick or Corsica Hockey, gameflow tables courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, and visualizations courtesy of HockeyViz.)