Seven Days in Stats: The second week brings little relief to a Montreal Canadiens team starving for success

The Habs are struggling to find a foothold in any aspect of the game. Especially on the penalty kill.

This week’s results: 4-3 L (OT) vs. TOR, 5-2 L @ SJS, 5-1 L @ LAK.

Welcome to Week Two, same as Week One.

Three more losses means the Montreal Canadiens limp into the third week of the season with a very real chance of returning from California with a 1-6-1 record.

Disclaimer: although the topics we highlight here are based on data, they are not to be taken as trends, as the sample sizes aren’t nearly sufficient. The intention is to look at curious or noteworthy things and talk about their implications if they persist in the future, or to explain something that’s occurred the previous week.

1. The Canadiens limited the Toronto Maple Leafs’ offence

First, let’s start with a positive. The Canadiens played a very good game against an opponent off to a hot start, and sometimes, you just have to nod your cap to the elite skill that was displayed by Auston Matthews.

The Habs held firm against a Leafs team currently second in the league in 5v5 Corsi-for events and first in scoring chances (by 29!), playing them dead even in terms of scoring chances (16-16) and high-danger scoring chances (8-8). Even though the Leafs won the Corsi battle 51-47, the Habs came out ahead in both Fenwick (35-27) and on the shot clock (29-19).

Shot blocking is usually a negative stat in that a high number of shot blocks indicates a team trapped in its own end. However, if a team can maintain relative parity in Corsi while winning the shot block battle, that’s usually a positive sign.

2. Julien’s new lines haven’t worked out

After the Chicago game, Claude Julien shifted his lines, looking for additional offensive production. The returns were ... not promising.

In terms of Corsi, the Hype Line’s (a registered trademark of Mr. Scott Matla for the Charles Hudon-Tomas Plekanec-Artturi Lehkonen combination) loss was the other two lines’ gain, but all three trios showed significant declines in terms of expected goal-scoring; meaning that the shot volume was there, but the scoring chances were generally not.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), Julien seems to have realized this and went to a third permutation for the Kings game, and possibly beyond.

(Just as a note, there were too many fourth-line permutations to present usable data.)

3. Second period woes are back

Last season during the playoff series against the New York Rangers, both Jack Han and myself noticed that the Canadiens noticeably struggled in the second periods of games they were otherwise dominating.

This trend seems to have carried over into the new season. Over the first seven games, the Habs somehow transition from an elite possession team to a contender for the league basement while in the dressing room during the first intermission.

Last year, Jack noted a greater reliance on uncontrolled zone entries and exits, possibly aligned with an overall increased aversion to risk-taking. It’s all well and good to play safe with the long change, but not to the point where you cede initiative to the opponent. It’s also not translating to any noticeable defensive effect, as the “against” metrics don’t change across periods.

4. The Habs are having issues protecting the slot

In the first week, the Habs’ record was largely due to extremely bad luck. Well, regression has come, and it’s come in both directions. Montreal did an abysmal job protecting the front of the net against Toronto, San Jose, and Los Angeles, and summarily paid the price.

5. But the biggest problem for the Canadiens right now is the penalty kill

Speaking of Price, the star netminder hasn’t had the start to the season that he has hoped for, but one area where the Canadiens are still being propped up by their netminder is on the penalty kill. The Canadiens rank a very subpar 25th in the league with a 76.9% proficiency, but their underlying statistics are, amazingly, even worse.

Carey Price and Al Montoya are actually propping up one of the league’s worst penalty kills, and the Sharks and Kings matches are clear demonstrations of how the penalty kill is shattering any small bit of momentum the Canadiens manage to acquire.

6. Trailing teams are supposed to generate more offence ... right?

When a team is trailing, they inevitably see a surge in offensive metrics as the leading team sits back and plays more cautiously – a phenomenon called “score effects.” But do score effects affect every team the same, and more importantly, what are the Canadiens doing when trailing, given that they’ve trailed so much this year?

Overall, teams in the NHL see better offensive (more “for” stats”) and defensive metrics (fewer “against” stats). This makes sense, as the trailing team takes the play to the leading team’s end.

The Canadiens, however, do not show any increased offensive production. Their “for” metrics are all at or below the levels they generate when the score is tied. The Canadiens are still subjected to score effects, but they come in the form of improved “against” metrics.

Basically, the Canadiens play worse offensively and better defensively when they trail – which may have more to do with the leading team taking their foot off the pedal than anything the Habs are accomplishing. Not exactly a fantastic recipe for mounting comebacks.

7. The Atlantic Division is still wide open

Fortunately, the Canadiens still play in the Atlantic Division, where the good teams are bad and the bad teams are good. There are a lot of underlying weaknesses early on in the season, and while Toronto appears to be legitimately good, Tampa Bay and Ottawa have not actually played well, while Detroit’s roster should not be on par with the division contenders.

The red on that table gives the Habs hope. Patience may be a difficult thing to advocate at the moment, but the Canadiens’ problems are fixable. They just require a combination of player confidence and coaching adjustments. We’ll see what Week Three will bring.

(All statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, and visualizations courtesy of HockeyViz.)

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