The end of 2014 is fast approaching, but the 2014-15 season isn’t even half over for the Montreal Canadiens, making it the perfect time to make a couple New Year’s resolutions and try and improve on an admittedly great 22-11-2 record so far. Here are the top five:
5) Be More Disciplined
The Canadiens have been shorthanded the fifth-most amount of times (124) and the sixth-most total amount of time (206:10). The league-leading Calgary Flames (in that category) have been shorthanded nearly a full game less (150:39), which works out to almost one less minor a game.
Thankfully, the Canadiens have only given up 17 goals when down a man, which is somehow tied for fourth best thanks to an incredibly effective penalty kill (86.3%; sixth in league).
Still, it’s clear the Habs can stand to be more disciplined.
Even if you don’t believe all the extra penalties—like P.K. Subban’s two in the third period of the Habs’ most recent 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, which effectively killed any realistic shot at a victory—will catch up with them on the scoresheet, all the time spent down a man is time spent away from the opposition’s net.
4) Be Less Dependent on Blocking Shots
It’s funny, but despite Montreal’s penchant for taking penalties, they’ve given up a relatively low amount of shots while shorthanded (164, ranked 16th in the league).
Okay, maybe not so much funny “ha, ha.” Funny in the odd sense. But there is a logical explanation. Look no further than the team’s other main penchant—blocking a boatload of shots—as the main reason why.
Montreal places third in the league in that statistical category, with 620. The teams above the Habs? None other than the fast-flickering Calgary Flames (683), who recently lost eight straight to fall out of the Western Conference playoff picture, and the Buffalo Sabres (656) who were never in it to begin with in the East.
While there is definitely a time for blocking shots, it shouldn’t be “all the.” It just isn’t a sustainable strategy for a team with aspirations of winning a championship.
Sure, the Habs deployed much the same strategy last season when they reached the Eastern Conference Final, leading the league during the regular season with 1491. But the reason they didn’t make it to the Stanley Cup Final had little to do with Carey Price getting injured (if you’ll recall, back-up goalie Dustin Tokarski played very well the rest of the series).
Come that final Game 6 against the New York Rangers, they registered just 18 total shots and five in the last period when they were down only 1-0 and still had a lot for which to fight. They just had no fight left.
3) Score More
There is only a single playoff team below Montreal in the goals-per-game column—the Winnipeg Jets. And when you’re in the same conversation as a team getting by on goaltending from Ondrej Pavelec (and back-up Michael Hutchinson)… not exactly a good sign.
Montreal places 19th best (really 12th worst) with 2.60 goals per game, which isn’t technically bad, but when your main competition for the Atlantic Division title, the Tampa Bay Lightning, is getting 3.19, you clearly need to make some adjustments… Hell, when you’re getting shown up by the Toronto Maple Leafs (3.33) of all teams, something definitely needs to change.
Correcting this problem is as simple as righting the power play, which has just 15 goals (and is ranked 23rd with 15.3%). The elite teams in the league in that category have double that total.
Another potential strategy? Actually trying to put the puck in the net in the first period instead of fishing it out of your own. Montreal has actually scored an average amount in the second periods of games (33, tied for 12th in the league) and an incredible 45 in the third (good for second in the league).
In the first? 12. The worst in the league, with their goal differential also being a second-worst -17. That’s one goal more than the league-leading Pittsburgh Penguins’ +16 differential (or 33 fewer… however you choose to look at it; there’s really no good way).
2) Get Better Starts
Coincidentally, relative to the 12 total goals scored in the first, Montreal has scored first 12 times this season, with an excellent 1.000 winning percentage in those games (best in the league). However, it’s also the fewest amount of games, with the Habs being tied with just the Arizona Coyotes (who are 6-4-2 when scoring first).
There are two schools of thought here:
- If Montreal were to score first every game, they’d be absolutely unbeatable golden gods in a league made up otherwise of mere mortals, and
- Even if Montreal did improve in this regard, all that would ultimately happen is that perfect winning percentage would drop
Obviously there’s little debating No. 2 (and every debating No. 1). There’s no realistic way for a team to consistently score first and win every time. By the same token, though, there’s no realistic way for a team to consistently score first and lose very often.
There is not a single team in the NHL that has failed to lose more often than win in regulation after having scored first. That includes even the very worst teams like the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes. If the Canadiens were to get off to better starts, there’s every reason to believe they’d be much better off in the standings and challenging for the Presidents’ Trophy instead of just a division title.
1) Montreal Canadiens as Atlantic Division Champions?
With each passing game, it becomes clearer the consensus top pick to win the Atlantic entering this season—the Boston Bruins—won’t be repeating as division champions this season.
As a result, the field has been left wide open, with the Canadiens, Lightning, and Detroit Red Wings (and dark-horse Maple Leafs) each having a realistic shot instead. Because of the current playoff format, that would mean the Habs would face one of the other two top teams in the first round were they to lose out on the top prize.
While that’s far from a guaranteed first-round loss (as the Habs themselves proved as the division’s third seed last season), Montreal would likely make it infinitely easier on itself by drawing one of the wild-card teams instead… unless of course we’re talking about the Bruins who remain in the mix in that regard.
Winning the Atlantic should as a result be the Habs’ top goal entering the second half of the season. It’s not at all guaranteed, but very much possible… as long as they make (and don’t break) each of the above four resolutions.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.