Yes, the Montreal Canadiens are undersized. Yes, they don’t score as many goals as they should. Yes, bench boss Michel Therrien makes questionable decisions at times. Yes, all of their possession statistics have been on a steady decline since the beginning of the season. Yet at this very moment in the season, none of that appears to matter. Here are 3 reasons Montreal is poised for a strong playoff run.
1. Carey Price
Since the lockout of 2005, only one Stanley Cup winning team has had a goalie play over eighty percent of their games, and only three have played in over sixty percent of their games. The goalies that have been on the upper echelon of these numbers tend to be younger, such as Marc-Andre Fleury in 2008 and Jonathan Quick in 2012. There’s an obvious move towards keeping a team’s starter fresh for the playoffs, but a higher amount of games played also seems to be mitigated by youth. Even if Carey Price were to start every remaining game this season for Montreal, he would only have started in 62 games total. Given his youth and his all-world ability, Montreal possesses Stanley Cup level goaltending, a factor which can easily get them to the second round based solely on Price’s play. For those who may disagree with that notion, look no further than Jaroslav Halak’s run of puck stopping wizardry in the 2010 playoffs, where Halak had a similar amount of games played and got hot at the right time. Seeing how both goaltenders’ careers have panned out since Halak being shipped to St. Louis, it is safe to assert that Price is the superior goaltender. Although Halak’s goals against average has been consistently better than Prices’s since the 2010-11 season, Price has had the lion’s share of games played and has posted a slightly superior save percentage of .917. When considering that Price has been on a team that finished dead last in the Eastern Conference in 2012, while Halak has only marginally better numbers on one of the best defensive teams in the post-lockout era, the picture becomes clearer in terms of just how good Price has been. So if Jaroslav Halak could carry a team on his shoulders to the Eastern Conference Final in 2010, then it is without a doubt that Carey Price could do the same if not more for this current Canadiens team. To boot, Price is having a career year in goals against and save percentage.
2. Thomas Vanek
Canadiens fans finally got to see what kind of game breaking talent Thomas Vanek truly is on Tuesday night against Colorado, one of the best young teams in the league. He’s only scored in one of six games since being traded from Long Island, but in every game he’s had ample scoring opportunities, and he is showing signs of chemistry on a line with Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais (who by the way, might be one of the best playmakers in the league). It’s not just Vanek himself that can propel Montreal to a deep run though. By having him on the top line, all of a sudden Michel Therrien has a lot more flexibility with his second and third lines. Tomas Plekanec with Daniel Briere and Brendan Gallagher sounds a whole lot better than having Brian Gionta playing on that line. Then you throw Gionta on a third line with Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk, and all of a sudden Montreal has a legitimate middle six that can score and bring energy and speed. As for the fourth line, Ryan White with Brandon Prust and Dale Weise/Travis Moen is about as good as it gets for a physical energy line. Granted it was against the worst team in the NHL, but on Sunday against Buffalo, White’s line had a number of shifts where they were able to cycle the puck down low and make life difficult for the opposition’s defense. Obviously Thomas Vanek isn’t the sole reason for all of these lines working out so nicely, but at the same time everything just seems to click with him in the lineup. Oh yeah, and Habs fans will have the treat of probably not seeing much of Rene Bourque for the rest of the season.
3. Power Play
Power play efficiency has been a hallmark of the Montreal Canadiens in past seasons, consistently finishing near the top of the league. 2013-14 has seen a slight dropoff to thirteenth in the league in power play efficiency compared to a top ten finish last year. All advanced metrics point to Montreal’s power play being mediocre, as they sit twenty first in Corsi For Percentage and eighteenth in Fenwick For Percentage. For those that don’t quite reach the level of nerdery needed to spend time looking up advanced statistics, what that means is that Montreal struggles to get pucks towards the net. However, they still sit thirteenth in power play efficiency, which seemingly doesn’t make sense given the aforementioned statistics. The reason for that appears to be that when Montreal does get pucks to the net, it is more often than not a rocket one timer from P.K Subban with a screen in front by Brendan Gallagher. What the stats fail to show is that the Canadiens are one of those teams that spends a lot of time looking for the perfect play instead of just throwing pucks at the net, which often times leads to turnovers and easy clears for the penalty kill. With Thomas Vanek in the fold however, the first unit appears a lot more fearsome, as penalty killers now have to worry about Vanek’s presence and shot around the net in addition to Pacioretty along the wall, Desharnais along the goal line, and Subban drawing tons of attention due to his one timer. This creates all sorts of problems for a defense where three legitimate scoring options must be watched at all times. Consequently, Gallagher gets moved down to the second unit with Plekanec and Gionta/Briere/Galchenyuk, providing a strong presence in front of the net and down low that the second unit would otherwise not have. Although the numbers may not reflect it yet, the Montreal power play can inflict damage on opposing teams and potentially be the difference in close games.
Montreal is not a perfect team by any means, as I still question Alexei Emelin’s ability to make intelligent passes out of his zone and Douglas Murray’s ability to…never mind. On that same note though, there are few teams in the Eastern Conference that don’t have some sort of weakness, and Montreal’s strengths could easily get them by the first round, and maybe even into the conference finals.