Thanks to an incredible 10-1-2 record over the past thirteen games, and a big win over their hated rival Boston Bruins on Thursday night, the Montreal Canadiens currently find themselves on top of the Atlantic Division standings.
Led by great goaltending from both Carey Price and Peter Budaj, and a suddenly sizzling hot Max Pacioretty, the Habs are proving last year’s regular season success was no fluke.
No, it is not a coincidence to see the Canadiens leading the division. In fact, they have been playing a very similar game to recent Stanley Cup Champions this season.
Habs At Best On Special Teams
Special teams have been the Canadiens bread and butter for years, and this season has been no different as the Habs are one of the best teams in the league in 5 on 4 situations, whether they are the team with the extra man, or down a skater.
The Canadiens currently have the third best penalty killing percentage in the league, and sit fifth in power play success. A year ago, the Chicago Blackhawks power play was middle of the pack, but they were the third best shorthanded team in both the regular season and postseason en route to winning the Cup.
In the 2011-12 season it was a similar story for the Los Angeles Kings on the road to their first ever Stanley Cup. Fourth best penalty killing team in the regular season, and the best in the Western Conference, followed by an astonishing 92.1% success rate in the playoffs that led all postseason teams.
The Bruins special teams was only middle of the pack on their 2011 Stanley Cup run, mostly thanks to the Canadiens completely shutting their power play out over a seven game first round series, but their special teams success improved once they moved on from the scare that Montreal gave them in the opening round.
The Blackhawks rode strong penalty killing to break their 49 year Stanley Cup drought in 2010, posting a top four shorthanded unit throughout the year. The story was quite similar when the Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks, Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins won their post 2005 lockout Stanley Cups, a decent power play, a top five penalty kill leading to a Stanley Cup.
Having a great penalty killing unit leads to the Canadiens being one of the best defensive teams in the league. The Habs have only allowed 60 goals in 30 games this seasons, their 2.0 goals against per game only trails the Bruins for stingiest defensive team in the league. Being an excellent defensive team has been the greatest factor of success in the NHL since the New Jersey Devils style led to a Stanley Cup nearly 20 years ago.
It may not be the most exciting brand of hockey for fans, but not since Mario Lemieux split the D and slid a backhander past Minnesota North Stars Jon Casey, has a team that all but ignored their own end of the ice been successful in this league. The Penguins have recently tried to return to the run and gun stlye in the postseason that worked for them in the early 90’s, but it led to some very ugly early exits, even with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the free wheeling and extremely entertaining offense.
The Canadiens are currently on a 13 game run where they have only allowed more than two goals in a game once. That game was against the New Jersey Devils, with backup Peter Budaj between the pipes. Price is playing some of the best hockey of his career, and goaltending has always been the most important position on a successful playoff team. His 1.95 goals against average and .938 save percentage are some of the best numbers being posted by any goaltender in the league this season.
Corey Crawford is not the flashiest name in the league, but he played extremely well when the Hawks needed him a year ago. Preceding him as Stanley Cup winning goaltenders were Conn Smythe Trophy winners Jonathan Quick of the Kings and Bruins net minder Tim Thomas. A team simply will not go far in the postseason without great goaltending, and the Canadiens have that in Carey Price.
Impressive Depth A Strength Of Canadiens
The Canadiens boast an impressive amount of depth on the roster, not leaning too heavily on one or two players, which makes them less susceptible to being overcome by an injury. At the beginning of the season the offense was carried by the young trio of Alex Galchenyuk, Lars Eller and Brendan Gallagher. When their offense tailed off, veterans Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta as well as surprising rookie Michael Bournival picked up the slack, and have recently passed on the hot stick to Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais.
This is not to say the others have been disappearing entirely for long stretches, but there has been a different line playing hero each night for the Canadiens, a trait that has come in especially handy for recent Cup winners.
Remember Andrew Shaw breaking out of a lengthy slump to score an overtime winner against the Bruins a year ago? Or Tyler Seguin scoring four points in an Eastern Conference Final game against the Tampa Bay Lightning after being quiet for weeks? How about Max Talbot, Dave Bolland and Frantisek Kaberle scoring game winning goals in a Stanley Cup clinching game?
Well, Montreal currently boasts the kind of depth that these teams had. The kind of depth that leads to a third line winger playing hero in the biggest game of the year, when the top six forwards are shut down by an excellent defensive team. It is the kind of depth where you can not be sure which of the Habs top three lines will step up and play number one minutes on a given night. This leads to the Habs offense being spread out among ten forwards, and no individual among the scoring leaders. In fact, defenseman P.K. Subban currently leads the team in scoring with 24 points in 30 games. This is not a problem, Subban is actually one of the biggest reasons for the Canadiens success this season.
Subban Holds the Key To Canadiens Success
Subban is one of the top scoring defenders in the league, and is among the best all around defenseman in the NHL. All recent Stanley Cup winners had a Norris caliber defender on the blue line to chew up minutes, and the Canadiens have the current Norris winner. The Blackhawks had Duncan Keith, Boston rode Zdeno Chara, Drew Doughty was a force for the Kings, the Ducks had both Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger and of course the Red Wings had Nick Lidstrom.
Subban is no Lidstrom, but he plays both ends of the ice with ease, can match up against any team’s top scorers, is very capable of playing in all situations and is one of the best power play quarterbacks in the league. Subban has matured into the type of defenseman that is capable of leading a team through a long postseason run.
Therrien Pushing Right Buttons To Propel Habs
Also helping the Canadiens since the beginning of last season, is a Head Coach who seems to know how to get the best out of his players. Michel Therrien’s ice time deployment has been questioned in the past, but he is beginning to loosen the reins he had on Subban, which had been the biggest point of contention with fans. Therrien certainly made Subban earn his increased role, but that is a better philosophy than throwing young players into the fire and hoping for the best.
Fans of the Canadiens are also tired of seeing the offensively inept Francis Bouillon on the second power play unit, but there are no better options on the Habs blue line, and using forwards back there can be risky. Besides the Habs 22.9% success rate while up a man is fifth in the NHL, so we are splitting hairs when complaining about who should be on the PP.
Therrien was also about the only person in the city of Montreal not to give up on Desharnais when he struggled mightily to begin the season. Even the Mayor called out Desharnais for his poor performance, suggesting he pack his bags for Hamilton and never come back.
David had just one point, an assist, in his first nineteen games, but instead of banishing the small center, Therrien sat him out a pair of games and then gave him a chance to redeem himself. Desharnais’ nine points in the past nine games, and 3 for 3 in shootouts on the season, is a huge reason for the Habs recent success.
Therrien is a patient coach, which can drive Habs fans crazy at times, but he understand the intricacies of an 82 game season, and does not make hasty decisions based on a few games, whether they are good or bad. This approach from Therrien will keep his players working as they know a two week span of great games is not going to impress their bench boss, but the players will also take comfort in the fact their coach knows players go through ups and downs in a long season, and they will be afforded a chance to dig themselves out of their slumps.
Michel lost in the Stanley Cup Final as Head Coach with the Penguins in 2009. The same fate that Darryl Sutter faced when he was coaching the Calgary Flames in 2004, before returning to win with the Kings. Mike Babcock felt the same sting of coming so close but ultimately falling short with the Ducks in 2003, but came back to win it with the Wings five years later.
It is a very long season, one that is not yet half finished, but the Montreal Canadiens are showing signs of following in the footprints left behind by recent Stanley Cup Champions.
There is no definitive blueprint for success in the entirely unpredictable National Hockey League. However, being one of the best defensive teams who boast the best special teams, with great goaltending, solid depth and a coach who knows how to push his players has worked to perfection in the past.
Fans of the Montreal Candiens can only hope that trend continues to breed success this season.