It’s the calmest week until the end of the season for the Montreal Canadiens.
This is the only week for the rest of the season that Montreal will play only three games. Every other week until the season concludes, if teams stay healthy, the Canadiens will play four games in a seven-day period. It is going to be a grind, so they have to do well while they are still fresh.
They needed to treat the Ottawa Senators with respect for a better chance at a good result, but they needed to get the job done. They did with a complete game effort and a 4-1 victory.
What a signing by GM Marc Bergevin to get Corey Perry. Perry is essentially making the league minimum to be one of the hottest scorers on the team. Perry’s had four goals in his last nine games, and now has seven goals on the season. Perry is also playing on the second power play unit and doing a terrific job in front of the net to create havoc.
Perry may not be much of a skater anymore, but he sure has not lost his hands. Perry can still dangle. While that may be true, his goals are usually of a more simple variety than a dangle. His goals are usually just stand in front of the net and push it home from one foot away.
Add to that what Perry brings in the dressing room with all of his experience. When you watch the Senators, you see a good young nucleus of players. There’s quite a considerable amount of talent ready to mature, but what they don’t have is Perry. They need a player like Perry to stabilize emotions, and teach them how to grow as NHL players in all of the ways beyond goals, assists, and points.
Alexander Burrows has done an outstanding job on the power play. The percentages are obviously far better under Burrows than Kirk Muller, but beyond that, the actual manpower and system play is vastly improved.
Burrows has two distinct units and has put a lot more attention on the second unit. Under Muller, it seemed as if the second unit was an afterthought. The second unit would only get the final 30 to 40 seconds, and they would not ever have the same manpower switching players in and out as if it didn’t really matter.
Beyond the manpower, though, notice the Burrows’ system changes. The most important is how much movement you see on the power play now of the Canadiens. It used to be nothing but static players standing in the same spot which is so easy to defend. Under Burrows, what you see is attackers constantly moving around the perimeter trying to change angles to open up defenders positioning to take advantage of a slight loss of coverage.
You also see attackers taking on defenders going right at them with speed. Not necessarily to beat them, but again, to change their positioning to weaken it overall. For example, Tomas Tatar threatened to push through against a winger and a defender, but backed away, two quick passes later, and the misplaced winger found himself in the wrong spot opening up a Canadiens chance.
Hockey is chaos. More than any other sport, hockey is a chase game with fewer system moments than other sports with huddles, pitches, and knowing that you will have the ball to begin and can plan from there. However, one place in which hockey is not chaos is the power play. You know at some point that you will be able to have possession in the attacking zone. You should have designed plays, and systems organized to take advantage. For about half a decade, it never much looked like that, but it does now.
Well done, Alex Burrows.
This was such a complete effort that it was almost dull for Habs fans. Carey Price got a 17-save shutout in game one after the break. Jake Allen allowed only one in 23 shots in game two. Price didn’t have a difficult chance to save in 60 minutes. Allen had one excellent save in the first period and the shutout broken with under two minutes left.
Other than that, this was so complete, there’s not a lot to say. It was the perfect road game.
The Canadiens looked like they were going to set the shorthanded goals record earlier this season when they jumped out to a quick seven. Since Feb. 4, though, not a single shorthanded goal. That is until Jake Evans did a fantastic job of taking possession of the puck, taking a quick peak across ice, and then feeding a gorgeous cross-body pass to Paul Byron who ripped it upstairs for a 2-0 lead.
Evans has played two games since Eric Staal was acquired, and they have been his best two games since early in the campaign. It does not seem as if Evans wants to give up his spot in the line-up. He will, though. As a centre, it seems inevitable. However, Evans has awakened enough that he is the first player to get back into the lineup, and it is even possible that Evans plays wing for a while here.
He’s a smart player, and he will be a centre in the long term on the Canadiens, and do an outstanding job as a fourth liner. But for now, making sure that he still has a spot playing seems a just reward for two outstanding games this week.
This version of Jonathan Drouin is having a strong season. Points-wise, he is not troubled at all with 21, which puts him in fifth place overall on the club. However, isn’t it time that he scores a bit?
Assists are great. No one is suggesting that assists don’t have value, but we also shouldn’t argue that assists have the same value as goals. Drouin has two goals. All season long, poor Philip Danault has been treated like an American Hockey Leaguer for not scoring enough. However, Danault now has more goals on the season than Drouin with three.
Drouin needs to shoot more. He knows he has a great shot, right? One reason Drouin doesn’t have more goals is not just that he is shooting sparingly. You also have to go into the dirty areas to score goals. Drouin has sweet moves when he is one-on-one against a goalie, but you aren’t going to be near a goalie unless you’re willing to take a little punishment.
There’s a reason Drouin doesn’t score a lot. It’s not an accident. Shoot more and score more, but also, get dirty more and score more. Until then, let’s all smile about all the assists, right?
Throughout the course of the season, in this column, there have been many references to Expected Goals Percentage. It’s a metric that takes shots taken and shots allowed combining it with the location and danger of those shots. It’s better than Corsi in that a shot taken from the blue line as a dump-in does not obviously have the same value as a shot taken from the slot.
Expected Goals Percentage is a better metric, but for many, it’s a new metric and, as a result, referring to it has not always gained a lot of traction amongst the fan base.
Time to try to put Expected Goals Percentage in a more common light. While the Canadiens remain dominant in this category, let’s approach it in a manner that fans have always approached it. Let’s approach it in a manner so that everyone can surely see how outstanding the Canadiens top line is of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher.
Rather than saying Danault’s line’s 70.3 percent in Expected Goals is the best in the entire league, let’s just look at it at actual goals-for versus goals-against.
The entire point of hockey is extremely simple. When you head out there as a line, you want to try your best to score, and also not allow a goal, either. Nothing could be simpler. A line that gets scored on a lot won’t be a line that stays together very long, and a player on a lot of those lines won’t be in the league very long. There’s nothing more disappointing than watching the other team celebrate.
The best line in the entire league in goals-for versus goals-against, which is the differential, is the number one line in Colorado of Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen. When that line has been on the ice, they have scored 25 goals while allowing 10. That is a differential of plus 15.
That’s a dominant line, and they have gotten all the respect that that deserves.
However, tied for first place with a two-goal night, we find a line that has been top five in the league for many years that gets hardly any respect at all. Danault’s line has been on the ice for 18 goals for and has allowed only three goals against. This is a differential of 15 this season.
It’s remarkable that the best line in the league in the most simple of metrics — the metric by which the entire game of hockey is measured — may not even be together next year. Tatar may not even receive an offer for a contract next season, even though he is a part of a dominant line. Danault may ask for more money. Bergevin has to find a way to keep them both. Tied for the best line in the league in goal differential at plus-15 is massive.
Third in the entire league is a line that gets huge respect in Las Vegas with Pacioretty-Stephenson-Stone of 25 goals-for and 13 goals-against for a differential of 12. The fourth best line with a differential of plus-10 is Hyman-Matthews-Marner.
It should be that the Canadiens line is as respected as the other three, but it is not.
Perhaps it’s that there is nothing inherently flashy about Gallagher as he is just a hard-working lunch-bucket sort of player. Perhaps it is that Tatar has never gotten any respect as he was even simply a throw-in player in a big trade. Perhaps it is Danault who takes care of defence well, but all of the talk is that he’s gone half a season without a single goal.
Whatever the reason, the point is this statistic could not be more basic, nor more important: be on the ice when you score and don’t be on the ice when you are scored upon. Montreal has the best line in the league at this. It’s time for some more praise.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.