It’s no secret that one of the bright spots for the Montréal Canadiens this season has been their play on special teams, particularly their strength on the penalty kill. In last week’s games against the Edmonton Oilers, they held what was the National Hockey League’s best power play team last season scoreless on 10 attempts. In the series against the Vancouver Canucks, the Habs tallied three shorthanded goals and finished the series as the league leaders in goals allowed per 60 minutes of shorthanded time.
Despite the promising outlook so far, it means the Canadiens still have to work on their discipline to avoid making the penalty kill such a prominent part of their game in the first place.
Jekyll and Hyde
The Habs’ penalty kill has largely been a blessing so far this season, but it’s also been a curse, of sorts. Against the Oilers, Montréal absolutely dominated the special teams scoresheet, holding the powerful Oilers duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl scoreless completely. However, the fact that the Canadiens held the Oilers off the board so many times means that something else is happening: they’re taking too many penalties.
Across the games against Edmonton and Vancouver, the Canadiens took a total of 22 penalties, allowing four power-play goals for a success rate of 82 percent. 82 percent is an exceptional clip, and is well-deserving of praise.
However, the sheer number of penalties also arguably cost them Wednesday’s game In Vancouver, as they allowed the Canucks, previously 0-for-15 with the man advantage, to score three power-play goals on six attempts. The Habs’ lead slipped away not long after that. The Canadiens only salvaged a point thanks to Tyler Toffoli’s tying goal midway through the third period.
Toffoli himself said after the game that penalty trouble killed the Canadiens’ chance to win:
“I’m not going to lie, I don’t really care who scores the goals, I just want to win games. That’s why losing a game like tonight kind of [stinks] when we had the opportunities to win and hold on.”
Room for Improvement
Despite the Canadiens’ struggles against the Canucks, coach Claude Julien said he wasn’t particularly worried about the number of penalties, but did say it required some work to round out the team’s game. While the Habs’ bench boss may not see a larger issue with the number of penalties the Canadiens are taking, Sportnet’s Eric Engels certainly does. Continuing the trend of undisciplined games like the one the Canadiens had against Edmonton and Vancouver will eventually come back to bite them, just like it did in the shootout loss to the Canucks.
What’s more, the majority of the infractions were avoidable. Tomas Tatar was flagged for hooking in the neutral zone, Ben Chiarot held in the defensive zone, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi was handed two minutes for yelling at the referee.
The Cost of a Lack of Discipline
Maybe a careless call like the one Kotkaniemi was hit with Wednesday night for unsportsmanlike conduct will one day result in a loss that keeps the Habs from a playoff spot. Maybe a high hit will result in a suspension that turns out to be critical – it’s not as if the Habs haven’t had that problem before.
Plus, the lack of discipline took away from Tyler Toffoli’s breakout game in which he potted a hat trick and got his goal-scoring account with the Canadiens started.
It hasn’t hurt them terribly yet, but if they don’t get the penalties under control, it could eventually be the thing that buries them.