One of the major talking points of this summer is whether the Montreal Canadiens’ performance in the bubble is indicative of the team’s true level or not, with the phrase “small sample size” sure to be mentioned ad infinitum. Certainly, the Canadiens’ 10-game run in the confines of Toronto’s Hotel X pales in comparison to the 153 regular-season games played by the club in the last two seasons, or even the 71 games that took place before Covid-19 forced a halt to proceedings.
At the same time, what happens if a small sample doesn’t actually deviate from the larger sample?
When we look at the bubble Canadiens, their five-on-five metrics are eerily similar to the last two regular seasons. Whether examining shot attempts, shots on goal, or expected goals, the Canadiens put up almost identical numbers. There is one variation of note, however: a 57% share of all actual goals scored at five-on-five, compared to 50% in the abbreviated regular season and 53% the year prior.
Generally, there are two potential causes for this spike in puck hitting actual twine: elevated shot percentage and elevated save percentage. While the bubble Canadiens showed some propensity for high-danger scoring chances at the expense of medium-danger chances, their overall shooting percentage actually declined marginally.
Instead, it was Carey Price and the defensive corps helping the team to a save percentage 6.5% higher than during the 2019-20 regular season. Price’s prowess was most clear when it came to high- and medium danger scoring chances, including an astonishing 98% stop rate for MDSCs.
So then, is the Canadiens’ run solely fueled by an non-reproducible Carey Price hot streak?
Well, not exactly. In the bubble, the Habs found something that had been eluding them for years: secondary scoring. For two years (including this abbreviated season), the Canadiens had been almost wholly reliant on Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, and Brendan Gallagher to score goals, with xGF% numbers dropping by a whopping ~5-15% with those three off the ice. During this run, that gap tightened considerably, thanks to the likes of Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and yes, Jonathan Drouin.
Admittedly, it’s likely that the breakup of the top line had something to do with the closing of that gap between themselves and the rest of the team. At the same time, the Canadiens’ overall numbers did not dip even though the big three were no longer together, meaning that the team finally found a way to secure depth on the offensive side rather than just the defensive.
The other key thing is the word “non-reproducible” when talking about Price. Fortunately for the Canadiens, even with goaltending being notoriously fickle, save percentage is historically easier to replicate than shot percentage. More importantly, contrary to what pundits may say, bubble Price did not have to reach the remarkable heights of his MVP season. Rather, Price’s excellent performance was something that he has achieved in short bursts on numerous occasions in the last two years.
To that end, the Canadiens’ success in Toronto was driven by their usual possession-driven game, augmented by newfound secondary scoring and a rested Price. If that’s the case, then there’s little evidence to indicate that these bubble Habs were a flash in the pan. At the same time, the new Habs are also not impervious to regression. Maintaining and augmenting secondary scoring, along with finding better working conditions for Price — including better special-teams play — will be top priorities heading into 2021.