To be the best, you have to beat the best. And that’s exactly how the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs appear to be unfolding for the Montreal Canadiens.
In the Western Conference, first round upsets abounded with only the Anaheim Ducks emerging among the favourites. In the East, every top seed came out victorious; a triumphant fact for those who believe the West is superior.
Although the Ottawa Senators were a bottom-ranked wild card team, they weren’t considered underdogs going into their series against the Canadiens. They dominated the league in the last quarter, overcoming a record 14 point deficit, to ensure their place in the 2015 playoffs. Many pegged them as favourites to beat the Habs.
Defeating the Senators
Habs fans were petrified of facing their foes in the first round; haunted by flashbacks of a 1-3 regular season defeat and a messy 2013 5 game playoff loss. No matter that the Habs dominated the regular season standings with 110 points, second only to the New York Rangers.
Goaltender Carey Price led the team to the top and now reality was about to set in, because the Habs, statistically, are a beatable team, especially by one that dictated the season series.
But the Habs, forever undervalued, continue to prove they are up to any challenge; that they are among the league’s best teams. They found ways to exploit the Sens’ playoff inexperience and exhausted lineup, and managed an early 3-0 series lead without relying on Price.
What’s most striking about the Habs first round victory over the Sens is not that they won, but the doubt that infused Habsland when they couldn’t close out the series in 4 games.
Though everyone knew the Sens were a very good team who matched up well against the Canadiens, and despite that many picked the Sens to win the series overall, panic set in after disappointing efforts in Games 4 and 5.
Naturally, there were and are concerns about the Habs game. But the truth is, statistically, it would have been harder for the Habs to lose that series than win it, and yet many felt the doom of a series loss anyway.
Why? Because the Habs simply aren’t the analytics darlings everyone wishes them to be.
— Rob Elbaz (@RobElbaz) May 1, 2015
Habs Defying Logic
In the new generation of reading and interpreting hockey games, the Habs defy logic. They don’t win the possession game, opting for choosy scoring opportunities on most nights over blind shots; their power play doesn’t work and they don’t score many goals.
Despite out-shooting the Senators more often than not, the Habs shot attempts % (close) on the series clocked under 50%. They rank outside the top 8, even below Ottawa, with 49.1%. The number is worrisome when analysts remind us that possession is the key success.
But, consider that only two teams in the top 8 of the SA% won their first round series, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Anaheim Ducks. The top two teams, the St. Louis Blues (60.5%) and Vancouver Canucks (55.6%) lost. Even if possession numbers become less significant in the playoffs, goal scoring does not and cannot.
It is a problem that the Habs rank 15th among the 16 teams that made the playoffs with a disappointing 2.00 goals per game average. By extension, the power play is also a disaster, ranked 15th with a 5% success rate.
But does that make the Montreal Canadiens an unworthy team? No. It makes them a difficult one to read and understand. Because they won their series, and a series as long as 7 games does not come down to luck, puck or otherwise. No, the Habs won their first round series because they have depth, incredible goaltending and a will to win that defies the odds.
Now, they have a date with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Defeating the Lightning
Going into their second round series against the Lightning on Friday night at the Bell Centre, the Habs once again find themselves the underdogs, despite their home ice advantage.
Granted, the task of beating the Bolts will be considerably more difficult than the Senators. Where the Senators spent most of their energy getting into the playoffs, the Bolts have been waiting and gunning for this rematch. The two teams spent the season neck-and-neck in the standings, with the Bolts taking the 5 game series by a wide margin, and Price in nets.
It’s going to be a challenge for the Habs to contain the Lightning offense. The Bolts, after all, can score at will with sniper Steven Stamkos (ranked 2nd with 43 goals during the regular season) and now Tyler Johnson, who is leading the playoffs with 6 goals after Round 1.
By contrast, the Canadiens have a defense-first approach that makes many nervous. Still, it held them in games all season long because it is led by the best goaltender in the game, and by some of the best defensive forwards in the league. The games will be faster and tougher than the Senators series but I expect the Habs to be ready and focused.
They will be prepared because the Canadiens are a good hockey team. They know it and now they’re intent on proving it, no matter what the stats say. To do so, for themselves and the rest of us, they will need to beat the best. The Tampa Bay Lightning might be their greatest test.
If they win this series maybe people will start to believe with them, instead of despite them.