The Montreal Canadiens shared one of the top headlines from the qualifying round as they played a significant role in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ demise, a result certainly aided by the Penguins’ own (in)actions as well. The committed defensive effort from the Habs was plain to see, with several of the team’s defencemen getting nightly praise for their efforts in containing the opposition’s offensive stars.
Now that Montreal is into the playoffs, their reward is a seven-game series with a team that plays a similar style. The Philadelphia Flyers were the class of the Eastern Conference Round Robin, putting in an impressive performance in the three games — or at least looking like the most interested team in a group of mostly listless clubs. Regardless of the reasons, it was clear that the Flyers wanted the top seed the most, and had no issues motivating themselves ahead of the elimination portion.
Given the difference in nature of the competitions each team played, a comparison of their post-season play so far wouldn’t tell us much. Instead, we’ll go back to the more standard base that was the NHL’s regular season, and look at the defencemen on each side.
Despite their tags as defensive, hard-working teams, several blue-liners on both clubs scored around one point per 60 minutes of five-on-five ice time. Unsurprisingly, Montreal was paced by its two most recognizable names, Shea Weber and Jeff Petry, with the third member of what Sportsnet analyst Kevin Bieksa has been calling the “Trident,” Ben Chiarot, as short distance behind. Philadelphia had several defencemen around that one-point-per-hour rate.
Like much of what both teams accomplish, it was mostly scoring by committee on the back end. Petry was the only defenceman on either team to rank among the NHL’s top 20 in points, with 40 in 71 games.
The Canadiens were generally better at creating scoring chances through the season, while the Flyers, with their better rates of offence, were more efficient at making theirs count. Montreal’s top four of Petry, Weber, Ben Chiarot, and Brett Kulak were all right around one scoring chances every two minutes of time, and all ranked among the league’s top 40.
One thing you can evaluate from the qualification portion of the post-season is how often defencemen were factoring in on the offence. Of the 10 goals Montreal used to dispatch the Penguins, four were scored by defencemen (Weber and Petry each had two), and blue-liners had a total of six primary points. The Flyers got two goals and five primary points from their defence on the 11 markers they tallied.
Philadelphia used one shutdown pair to limit the offence of opponents this season, giving their number one, Ivan Provorov, and partner Matt Niskanen the brunt of the defensive-zone faceoffs. Travis Sanheim was the only other defender to get more end-zone starts in front of his own goaltender, and it was a marginal difference.
Despite the tough deployment, the top duo did a more-than-respectable job of suppressing scoring chances for the opposition, and both had positive scoring-chance differentials at five-on-five. In fact, their defensive numbers weren’t much worse than their more sheltered teammates’.
Claude Julien had no issues trotting out all of his blue-liners in defensive situations this year. with no buried pairing. None of the six players who have made the post-season lineup (everyone in these tables minus rookie Cale Fleury) showed they needed such favourable deployments. The number of scoring chances allowed are a bit higher for the Habs as a result, but the differentials were much greater for all of Montreal’s options.
Despite the general praise for the superior depth of the Flyers — in some cases lauded as the best in the playoffs — the numbers don’t support that claim among the blue-line corps. Philadelphia is a team that plays one pairing significantly more than the others, and the story was the same in the round robin.
Montreal sniffed out the weaknesses on Pittsburgh’s blue line early in the qualifiers, and used superior forward depth to exploit the pairing of Justin Schultz and Jack Johnson. If the Canadiens can play an even game while Provorov is on the ice , there will be chances for them to pressure Philadelphia’s bottom four, and especially the bottom pair once again, to create a more competitive series than some pundits are expecting.