Optimism Abound for Montreal Canadiens at Halfway Point

At around the quarter mark of this 2014-15 season, the Montreal Canadiens led the league with a 16-5-1 record. Now, after game 41, the Habs are 26-12-3, second in the Atlantic Division, and five points back of top spot, which belongs to both the Nashville Predators (and Anaheim Ducks with two more games played).

So, technically, the Habs have somewhat slowed down (10-7-2 since the quarter point of the season)… but that isn’t exactly reflected in their report card, which still features enough high marks to go around.

 

 The Montreal Canadiens Offense – B

Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty
Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty – (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Whereas, at the quarter mark, the Habs were scoring at a 2.59 goals-per-game clip, they’re now at around the same mark (2.58). Meanwhile, their shots per game have fallen off slightly from 27.8 to 27.4. Possession-wise, they’re only getting 48.7% of total shot attempts at five-on-five.

However, their mark stays the same, at a “B” for the simple reason that the Habs are still managing to connect on whatever shots they are getting, with a very impressive 9.4% shooting percentage, eighth best in the league. The main worry though is whether or not that kind of puck luck can continue.

 

Defense – A-

It may admittedly be on the strength of the goaltending of Carey Price, but there is little denying the stat that says the Canadiens are third-best in the league in terms of goals against per game (2.29). A quarter of a season ago, that figure stood at 2.36.

Unfortunately, there’s also little denying their shots against per game, which has stayed the same, at 30.5, and is now 23rd in the league. No other playoff team has a shots-against average that high.

Montreal’s goaltending continues to be its saving grace in that regard as the Habs’ netminders collectively lay claim to the second-best save percentage in the league, behind the Chicago Blackhawks (.925 vs. .926).

With Carey Price finally posting a second-consecutive all-star-caliber season, there’s a sense of optimism 2013-14 was a turning point in his career and this is one trend that will continue. He is among the league leaders in most every relevant statistical category with 22 wins, a 2.19 goals-against average, and .928 save percentage (up from .922 at the quarter-mark).

About the only stat in which he falls short is shutouts with two compared to Pittsburgh Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury’s six. However, that only means Price has had to be more consistent throughout to rank everywhere else.

Goaltending – A+

 

Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban
Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban – (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

Special Teams – B

Up from 12.9% at the quarter mark, the Habs’ 13.7% power-play is slowly (not necessarily surely) climbing towards respectability. It’s still got a long way to go, but at least it’s moving in the right direction, similar to the penalty kill, which is up from 84% to 85.3%, good for seventh-best in the league. The minor upticks are enough to give their “B-“ grade from last time a bump up to a “B.”

 

Coaching & Management – A

General manager Marc Bergevin’s performance this season was never really in doubt. He’s done an exceptional job for an extended period of time now, dating back to before last season, when he ultimately got nominated for GM of the Year.

However, head coach Michel Therrien has always been more of a question mark. Sure, his team has been winning, but the below-average possession numbers indicated (and still do to a certain degree) that the success isn’t sustainable. That’s the only reason, however, that Bergevin and Therrien collectively get an “A” and not an “A+.” And to penalize a team based on the lack of success they may (or may not) find in the future is admittedly akin to grasping at straws to a certain degree.

Therrien had previously been criticized for failing to give Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi a long-enough chance to make a mark. Now Beaulieu’s in the midst of becoming a mainstay on this team, having dressed 12 games in a row.

It had also been pointed out that the Habs were failing to find their feet early on in games. Now, overall that remains true. The team has scored just 16 goals in the first period compared to 30 against for the second-worst differential in the league.

However, it’s all on the verge of turning around, with the team having scored first in six straight games. Granted, not all of those first markers have come in the first period (somehow just three of those six), but it’s nevertheless a sign of improvement… just not enough at this point to warrant a higher grade.

 

Overall – A

Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price
Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price

Despite the lower points percentage this quarter of the season (.580 vs. .750) and the fact that the Habs are no longer in first place, it’s hard not to give them props for staying within reach of top spot in the league. No one expected them to stay this high in the standings this long (or even get this high to begin with).

Perhaps more importantly, they remain within striking distance of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa has 58 points with two more games played. The Habs are just three points back and are entering a relatively easy portion of their schedule.

Over the Habs’ next 21 games, 13 of which being at home, they will play 14 teams currently out of the playoffs. They’re not guaranteed points by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a start… or a continuation if you prefer.