It is way too early for anybody in Montreal to panic, although a loss at home against the Florida Panthers is enough to make the clock speed up a little bit. Following that up with a win over the Phoenix Coyotes has moved many away from the panic button, but even that win, as well as Saturday’s victory over the Islanders, were less than convincing performances. Regardless of how disappointing the team’s last few performances have been, the team retains one of the best records in the Eastern Conference. Three losses in five games is only a blip on the radar, especially with the quality hockey with which it was proceeded.
However, addressing issues that cause poor performance when things start to go wrong is significantly better than doing so when the problem has already caused a more serious issue. Undoubtedly, the team is doing some navel gazing after a week that certainly did not go as planned. They will push to correct these issues before taking a break for the Christmas holidays.
There are any number of issues and corrections, ranging from minor to major, that the coaching staff will have outlined after the fallout that came with the complete lack of exuberance against Florida, and in the first period versus Phoenix. The main focus will probably be the lacklustre offensive effort: in the last 5 games the Canadiens haven’t scored a single goal in the first two periods. New line combinations may be in order as the team has failed to replicate the chemistry that ignited the 9-0-1 run from November 19th to December 7th.
But all of this would be ignoring a fundamental issue that will continue to plague the team if they cannot find a solution: the Canadiens are too reliant on their special teams. The penalty kill has been near the top of the NHL, and has saved the team in many a tight situation. But that is far from the problem, nor is it unsustainable in theory. The true dependence issue with the Habs has been their need for the man advantage.
At 6th in the NHL, the Canadiens powerplay is not the league’s best. At 121 powerplay opportunities, good for 9th in the league, it is narrowly in the top third in that department. But what is so worrisome about the Canadiens is how precisely the number of man advantages they receive correlates with victories. Statistically, the fewer powerplays the Canadiens receive the less chance there is that they will win a hockey game.
To get a comparison to what is normal, the Canadiens must be aligned with similar clubs. The Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning all have had a very similar number of powerplay opportunities to the Canadiens and are not too different in terms of record. What is different is the fact that all of these teams have almost the same number of powerplay opportunities when they win as when they lose.
The Canadiens 26 powerplay goals represent a disproportional 30% of their total goals scored. But even that is not the biggest concern for a club that have been offensively challenged so far this year. It is the Canadiens reliance on powerplay opportunities or organize and generate 5-on-5 offense. During 5-on-5 play, the team has a 0.96 goals for/against rating, worst among the previously mentioned comparable teams. The longer the team goes without an extra man it seem the more disgruntled their offensive effort becomes.
A perfect example of this came last week against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Canadiens only received one powerplay opportunity in the entire game and it was evident. In a week of lacklustre offensive performances it may have stood out as the worst, at least until an Alex Galchenyuk shot fooled Steve Mason for the Habs only tally of the game. Without the reprise provided by having an extra man the Canadiens once again had difficulty mounting any offensive momentum.
The sole qualifier is the following: teams generally receive powerplays when they are playing well as a result of their relentless pressure on the opposition. This would seem to partially explain the fact that the Canadiens have significantly more powerplay opportunities when they win than when they lose. But if this was the case you would think the Canadiens numbers would be similar to the rest. The margin for error in this case is simply not that large. Even the Washington Capitals, a team who on the surface seem reliant on special teams, have roughly the same number of powerplay opportunities when they win as when they lose.
The Canadiens cannot control how many powerplays they get in a given game, and therefore resting their success largely on a variable factor is a dangerous game. In recent years we have seen the number of penalties called drop dramatically come playoff time. If the team really wants to transform into the contender they could potentially be they will need to do so without the added power.
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