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The Montreal Canadiens need to learn how to play with a lead

Jan 6, 2024; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Montreal Canadiens goalie Sam Montembeault (35) stops New York Rangers forward Barclay Goodrow (21) with the help of teammate defenseman Kaiden Guhle (21) during the first period at the Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

As we approach the midway point of the 2023-24 season, we’re starting to get a clearer picture of who exactly these Montreal Canadiens are. They’re not yet a playoff team, but appear poised to finish closer to the playoffs than they have in the previous two years. They’re getting fantastic production out of a young defensive corps, and thanks in large part to that production, they’re capable of making it a game on any night, even against contending teams.

We also know what they can’t do whatsoever, which is hold a lead. The following chart from Micah Blake McCurdy breaks down how their expected-goals situation changes based on game score so far this season, and it paints somewhat of a bleak picture.


The Habs seem to play their best hockey with a one-goal lead, which is quite frustrating, knowing what happens when they get the second, or third. When up by two goal, they are expected to allow 66.1% more goals than league average, and score 31.1% less. It gets even worse when the lead is three or more, where they should expect a whopping 81.5% more goals against compared to league average, while scoring 54.4% less. When they’re up two, they stop playing, but when they get to three or more, they leave the building.

Part of this is score effects, as any team with a multi-goal lead will typically tend to play with a little less urgency, negatively impacting their expected-goals. The drop off for the Habs is far too steep to be explained away by score effects, however, as they completely fall to pieces whenever they’re up by several goals. Just take a look at the same chart for the San Jose Sharks, currently the worst team in the entire NHL.


Not even the worst team in the league is as bad as the Habs with a two-goal lead, and they actually improve if and when they get the third. The good news is that the Habs are significantly better than the Sharks when the score is tied or within a goal, but that is cold comfort knowing the positions of these two teams, and where they’re at in their respective rebuilds. If you can’t play with a lead better than the frontrunners in the Celebrini sweepstakes, you have a bit of a conundrum on your hands.

This has never been more evident than in the two most recent Habs wins, both against true playoff contenders in the Dallas Stars and New York Rangers. When we take a look at the team’s last game against the Rangers, we can really see this in action. They were playing a very tight game right up until their two quick goals in the second period opened up a three-goal lead in their favour.

Natural Stat Trick

We know how the rest of this game played out. The Rangers stormed back against an anemic Habs squad, who didn’t really start playing again until their lead was blown and the game was tied. A heroic performance from Samuel Montembeault held the Rangers to just three goals, and ultimately gave the Habs the chance they needed to win the game in a shootout.

Wins are great, but they could be a whole lot less stressful. Going back two games to the nail-biting victory over the Dallas Stars on January 2, we can see a very similar story.

Natural Stat Trick

Against Dallas, they didn’t find a quick fourth goal, and had to play for a while with the two-goal advantage, which was heavily in the Stars’ favour. A third-period power play marker might have been a pressure-reliever for some teams, but for the Habs, we know it just exacerbates the situation. It was all Dallas, all the time, and much like he did against the Rangers, Samuel Montembeault had to take that game home against a hellacious onslaught from the Stars.

About six minutes of that onslaught was executed with the Dallas net empty, which is not an insignificant part of the Habs’ inability to defend leads. Dating all the way back to their season opener with Toronto, they look like deer in the headlights when the opposition sends an extra attacker, rarely able to get an empty netter to take the pressure off.

Part of the problem appears to lie with their defensive strategy, particularly against oncoming rushes. They aren’t a team that consistently meets the rush at their own blue line, but they do it enough for us to know that they are capable of it. That goes out the window when they’re defending a lead, with defencemen routinely backing up nearly to their own goal line, essentially giving free rein to the opposition in gaining the line.

This is doubly problematic because the team struggles when it comes to clearing their zone, even when they’re not defending a lead. When they apply their open-door policy at the blue line, they’re playing right into one of their biggest weaknesses. They also hamstring one of their biggest strengths by essentially eliminating the activation of their defencemen on the rush, turning the highest scoring defensive corps in the league into clock killers trying to survive against a mountain of scoring chances.

While they’re not remotely expected to be a playoff team right now, this is something the coaching staff will need to address as part of completing the rebuild. We’ve seen how this team can play against ostensibly superior teams, so the fact that they abandon everything that allows that to be true once they get a few goals suggests they’re being instructed to do so. Games that go down to the wire sure are fun to watch, but this young team needs to learn how to close games out with authority, and make that part of their identity before they’re ready to compete.

They play great hockey to earn the leads that they tend to squander. The coaching staff now has to figure out how to keep them playing that hockey once they earn those leads.

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