Montreal Canadiens Not Playing to Their Strengths

Toronto Maple LeafsOn January 12, the Montreal Canadiens had a comfortable 10-point lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs for 3rd spot in the Atlantic Division; a lead it has seen vanish in a matter of two weeks.

Yes, that’s right Habs fans. Our hated rivals, the Maple Leafs, are now dead even in points with Nos Glorieux.

Obviously, this has been a rough stretch. It’s like being in a nightmare with the inability to wake up. But, the reality is, the Canadiens are slipping fast and a team that seemed so far behind is now looking Montreal right in the eye. Is this the wake-up call this team needed?

The truth is, despite the Canadiens firm grip on a playoff spot (for now), the Habs have not played consistent hockey in almost two months. It is being outshot, outchanced and outplayed on a regular basis. What’s worse is the struggles are showing no signs of slowing down.

The Canadiens were on a winning streak at one point; a streak that seems so long ago now. But it did happen in the mid-to-late November period, which saw the Habs go undefeated in 10 games (9-0-1).

Since that streak, Montreal has played 18 games, going 8-8-2 in that span. On the surface, this does not look too bad. Sure, .500 hockey won’t earn you a playoff berth, but this is an 82-game season. Rough stretches are bound to happen. It’s nothing to be concerned about, right? Wrong.

Sometimes, the record does not tell the whole story and, in this case, that could not be truer. Unfortunately, it is for all the wrong reasons.

Montreal’s play of late has indicated it does not deserve to be in the position it is in right now. The team goes into defensive shells with the lead, are hesitant with the puck in the defensive zone and, ultimately, does not play desperate hockey for a full 60 minutes.

When comparing the Canadiens’ statistics during the 10-game point streak to the statistics since then, there are a few glaring stats that make you want to cringe when you look at them.

RecordGoals/GameGoals Against/GameShots/GameShots Against/GamePowerplay %Penalty Kill %Hits/GameFace-off %
9-0-13.3 G/G2.2 GA/G28.8 Shots/G29.4 SA/G21.9%88.5%20.0 Hits/G51.8%
8-8-22.27 G/G3.05 GA/G26.44 Shots/G28.67 SA/G13.8%84.2%24.4 Hits/G45.8%

Now, what’s interesting about this table above is some of the stats during the undefeated streak are actually worse than what the Habs have done since. However, upon analyzing this, it becomes clear what Montreal’s problem is.

If you look at the shots per game during the winning streak, the Canadiens took more shots, but also allowed more. However, despite allowing more shots, it managed to maintain a 2.2 goals against average. A lot of this is because of Carey Price, but Price was also the starter during the 8-8-2 slump.

Moreover, the Canadiens scored, on average, just over a goal more per game during the winning streak than it has in the last 18 games. So, what are the Habs doing differently? The answer is simple: strategy.

The key to winning is playing to your strengths. The Canadiens are not the biggest team. In fact, their average height ranks dead last in the NHL. However, Montreal is built around speed and skill. The team is one of the fastest in the league and it is able to transition up the ice better than most.

Despite this being evident to most of us, Michel Therrien is set on playing a defensive style of hockey. A style teams like the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings have adopted. The problem is Montreal is simply not built to play that style. Trying to outmuscle the opposition, dumping and chasing pucks into the corner, battling along the boards and going into defensive shells; these strategies are all recipes for disaster with this team. Yet, that has been the Canadiens of the past two months.

Many people will argue that being physical in hockey is always the way to go and it can be. But if your team is simply not built for a physical game, then perhaps it’s best to focus on what your strengths are?  In Montreal’s case, that does not mean trying to outhit the other team to gain momentum. In fact, during the undefeated streak, the Canadiens averaged four less hits per game than in the last 18 games. That’s not to say there’s a direct correlation between winning and less hitting, but in Montreal’s situation, it certainly did not help to be more physical.

Additionally, during the winning streak, the Canadiens spent a lot more time controlling the puck and when you control the puck, you do not have to play defense.

Max Pacioretty put it best when he said:

Max Pacioretty Photo: Olivier Jean

Max Pacioretty
Photo: Olivier Jean

“Saying we’re playing great defence isn’t exactly a compliment because it means you don’t have the puck and that means you can’t play offence. You can talk about offensive D-men not playing well defensively, but they don’t have to because they’re always on offence, that’s my view.

We’re in our zone too much, sitting on our heels worrying about guys on the other team when we should be attacking. We’re caught up trying to shut down stars, but stars take chances and they cheat so I think it’s an opportunity to attack and we’re not doing it.”

Puck possession is absolutely crucial to being successful in the NHL, especially for a team like the Canadiens. As a Habs fan, the lack of puck possession and sustained pressure in the offensive zone has been hard to watch. Some of that is on Therrien, but not all of it.

Montreal has been absolutely abysmal in the faceoff circle since the beginning of December, winning only 474 out of 1035 faceoffs (45.8%) in their last 18 games. Faceoffs may only be a split second, but it represents a critical aspect of the game; one that can determine the outcome of a match. Winning a faceoff can make a significant difference in puck possession and zone time. Lars Eller is the only center on Montreal to average more than 50% in the faceoff circle (51.8%). Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais, both of whom take a substantial amount of the team’s faceoffs, come in at well under 50%.

Surprisingly, one stat that was actually worse during the winning streak was the amount of giveaways.  Perhaps it was a foreshadowing of things to come? Giveaways are never a good thing, no matter how you look at them. You could argue that with more risk comes more giveaways, but all too often Montreal seems to give the puck away at the worst possible time. Giveaways often lead to quality chances, and quality chances lead to goals. Price’s save percentage has dropped dramatically over the course of the season and, for the most part, it is because of the amount of scoring chances the Canadiens have wrapped in a box and donated to opponents. Price has played exceptionally well and is one of the only reasons the Canadiens can call itself a playoff team, at the moment. However, these untimely giveaways could change that in a hurry.

Despite the impressive winning streak in November, the Canadiens did not play its best hockey toward the end of that streak and it inevitably carried over into future sub-par performances. If the Canadiens want to turn this slump around, it is going to need to start looking at tapes, getting back to the basics and playing to its strengths. The transition game is, and has been for many years, the Canadiens’ recipe for success. That’s how the team has been successful this year. That’s how it finished 2nd in the East last year. That’s how it will have any hope of contending this year.

And when better to turn this around than against Crosby and the Eastern-Conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins?

By Ryan Skilton, former AATH writer

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