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Where the Montreal Canadiens stand after a fifth of the season

Comparing the Canadiens’ play to that of the other seven teams in the Atlantic Division.

Montreal Canadiens v Boston Bruins - Game Seven Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

With 16 games played, we’re now about a fifth of the way into the regular season. Some teams are beginning to fall well back of those vying for playoff positions, but there are tight races for post-season slots all across the league.

The Montreal Canadiens’ Atlantic Division may not be as closely contested as the Pacific, where the top teams are all within three points of the top spot, but it is still a very competitive section.

Stats in this article as of 8:00 PM ET on Friday

Despite what has been a fairly strong start to the season, the Canadiens aren’t even in a wild-card spot at the moment. Last season they missed the playoffs by a frustratingly slim margin, finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference with 96 points. This year, they’re on pace for 97, which should be good enough to get a team in, but likely not if they still rank fifth in their own division at the end of the year.

The points are one way to evaluate their start, but how likely are they and the teams around them to carry the play from this opening sample through the remainder of the year? For that we’ll look at some of the underlying numbers to see if the teams have been overperforming, underforming, or getting exactly the results their play deserves.

One of the original “fancy” stats was a way to measure the amount of work goaltenders were tasked with in a game; not just reacting to the shots that made their way to the goalie, but every attempt that forced him to react. Those shot attempts, or Corsi, are a good indicator of how much puck possession a team gets, and whether they’re able to use it in a bid to create goals.

CF/60: Corsi for per 60 minutes; CA/60: Corsi against per 60; CF%: Corsi for divided by total for and against
Five-on-five stats via Natural Stat Trick

Montreal was the best team in the Atlantic at launching pucks toward the opponent’s net at five-on-five through the games on November 7. Already with one of the highest marks in the first eight games they played, they’ve jumped up to over one attempt each minute in their last eight matches; a rate unmatched by any other NHL team in that period.

With that increased shooting came more looks for the other team. Montreal was slightly above the division average in suppressing attempts in the opening part of the year, but they’ve starting leaking Corsi against in recent weeks, to a rate close to the worst the division has seen in 2019-20. Despite that, the overall change is a net positive for the Canadiens, as their Corsi-for percentage rose about a percentage point.

They were ranked 10th in Corsi-for percentage at 51.7% at the time the data was sampled, but that was still only good for fourth in the division; another indication of how strong the Atlantic has been.

Not all attempts are equal. Corsi counts a shot from a team’s own blue line with equal weight as a rebound shot from two feet out. It serves as a good indication of possession, but not necessarily how good the team has been at creating offence.

To get a better idea of that, scoring chances only count attempts taken from inside the attacking zone, and gives higher values to those taken from closer to the crease. They help to understand which teams are getting good offensive looks, or giving them up in their own end.

SCF/60: scoring chances for per 60 minutes; SCA/60: scoring chances against per 60; SCF%: scoring-chances-for percentage

The order doesn’t change much from the Corsi rankings, but the Canadiens do leap over the Boston Bruins with a significantly better scoring-chances-for percentage. As we saw in the shot-attempt splits, the Canadiens started to allow more opportunities for the opposition at full strength of late, but the gains they made in their own chances heavily outweigh that defensive drop.

They were getting more than one attempt each minute since October 19, and a significant percentage of those are coming from right close to the net. Once again, no team had a better scoring-chances-per-60 mark in the period encompassing the Habs’ most recent eight games.

The stats suggest that the Canadiens are playing well enough to be a spot or two higher in the Atlantic — at least in terms of the five-on-five play that makes up the vast majority of an NHL game. Special teams do play a big role in a team’s fortunes, and we’ve seen how poor the penalty kill has been, but, in general, the Canadiens have been one of the stronger teams in a strong division.

It’s not just them due for a rise, however. The Florida Panthers lead both categories and should be rising up closer to the top as well.

The most likely candidate for the Canadiens to pass over the final 80% of the season is the Buffalo Sabres. They rank either last or second-last in the two measures of performance discussed here. At one point leading the division, they’re currently on a three-game losing streak, and the stats suggest that won’t be as far as they fall.

Many would probably expect them to swap places with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Last year’s Presidents’ Trophy-winners didn’t get off to a great start, but they should have the team to pul them out of it. Yet they haven’t managed to even tread water in possession or scoring chances in their first 14 games. They have more games remaining than every other team in the division to figure things out, but their standings position isn’t completely out of line with their play thus far.

Montreal just needs to continue doing what they’re doing — perhaps with a bit of a tightening up on defence. They’ve had a few new players, including two rookies, adjusting to the system in the opening weeks, and the trend suggests things are beginning to settle into place for the team. Should their play hold, a post-season berth, and possibly even a division seed, could await them in five months’ time, but it’s going to be a fight with several other good clubs all year long.