I have to admit, the Montreal Canadiens fascinate me right now as a hockey team.
The Habs came into the season slightly re-tooled. With Eric Cole joining Brian Gionta, Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammelleri, plus emerging stars in Andrei Kostitsyn and Max Pacioretty, Montreal boasted an impressive cast of 20-goal scorers even if they lacked a true game-breaker.
Montreal is near the top of the league in puck possession metrics, well-stocked on defense and have an All-Star goaltender who was fourth in even strength save percentage last season and made more saves than every NHL keeper but Cam Ward. Carey Price is, by all estimations, a pretty good goalie.
So what’s the deal? Montreal has started off the season on a roller-coaster record and sit at 11-16 (ignore the five bonus points. They’ve won 11 games and lost 16), have allowed two more goals than they’ve scored, and somehow still sit within striking distance of the NHL playoffs.
Many of the Canadiens struggles lie on the powerplay. While the team has been very successful at controlling the flow of play at even strength and keeping pucks out of the net while down a man, Montreal’s powerplay has been brutal this season, converting on 12.2% of attempts, 5th worst in the NHL.
A far worse indictment of the team’s “jeu de puissance” is that the team has just 3.4 goals per 60 minutes when they’re playing at 5-on-4, which is the lowest in the NHL, and well below the NHL median of about 6.1.
What really is the difference though? Last season, Montreal was 6th in goals per 60 with the man advantage. In 2010, they were second. How does a team go from first to last that quickly? Poor setups? Lack of shots? Lack of quality shots? Have they become too predictable?
Or is it simply bad luck? With 53.4 shots per 60 minutes on the powerplay to their credit, Montreal has run into Tim Thomas-esque goaltending when they’re up a man—opposing goalies have stopped 93.7% of the shots. Should the trend continue, it would make Montreal the worst shooting team on the powerplay since advanced special teams numbers have been tracked.
However, there’s reason for hope in Montreal. It probably won’t. Work has been done measuring the regressive quality of penalty-killing save percentage. High save percentages are pretty unstable for individual goalies, so why not for the collective goaltenders a team faces?
Check out Montreal’s last game against Los Angeles, one in which they recorded an elusive powerplay goal. They did, however, also put five other shots on net. In their game before, against San Jose, they generated three shots on a single powerplay and lost by a goal. Against Anaheim, on seven attempts, they had seven shots, with no goals.
This is pretty indicative of a season-long trend so far for Montreal. Create opportunities, don’t get rewarded. While we may fuss about the ‘quality’ of those shots, blogger Olivier Bouchard, who counts scoring chances for the Canadiens at the blog En Attendant les Nordiques, counted 12 powerplay scoring chances for the Habs on their trip against Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles.
PK Subban has taken 27 powerplay shots and has yet to record a goal. Mike Cammelleri has taken 20. No goals. Max Pacioretty has taken 11. Nothing for him, either. The labourers on the Canadiens powerplay have yet to be rewarded, with pucks on the doorstep hitting pad or post instead of twine.
Eventually, that will change. Montreal is a strong enough team at even strength that even a powerplay that clicks at an average rate should keep the team above .500, but their bad luck a man up cost the team a bunch of goals in the first quarter that the team won’t get back any time soon.
So if you’re a Habs fan and the situation seems dire and the team predictable, don’t fret too much; they’re a better team than the record indicates. I may read like a broken Internet every week when I discuss the early fate of hockey teams, but I believe that Montreal’s powerplay is certainly a trend that has the potential to even out sooner rather than later.
The Habs have been good at even strength. If it’s truly the PP that’s been killing them, that is something bound to change. They’ve had a terrific powerplay in both shots, goals, and efficiency rate over the last two years, and it simply isn’t true that the team has just dried up.