The Montreal Canadiens Are Peaking, But Is It Too Late?


The Montreal Canadiens Are Peaking, But Is It Too Late?

The Montreal Canadiens have put together a pair of wins against the Lightning – their first two this season against their division rivals – and suddenly a series that appeared lost is still very much undecided as it shifts back to Tampa Bay for Game 6 on Tuesday. Ironically, even while they were losing, it seemed the Canadiens were playing some of their best hockey this season, and doing it against a team that had their number all year long.

Plenty of ink has been spilled (or at least the digital equivalent) and hours of analysis has been filled with talk this season about how the Montreal Canadiens did not play like a true Stanley Cup contender, largely because their possession numbers, measure by metrics such as shot attempts (Corsi), simply couldn’t keep up with the best teams in the league.

On the NHL’s own website, the Canadiens never cracked the top five this season in the Super 16, the weekly power rankings despite consistently being a top five team league-wide in terms of points. In the final week before the playoffs, the Habs were judged to be the fourteenth most powerful team in the league, five spots behind the freshly eliminated L.A. Kings.

And perhaps the criticism was fair. The Canadiens were after all, a very poor possession team throughout the season. According to, the Habs finished 23rd in 5v5 cf%, which is to say, they were 23rd of 30 teams in terms of 5-on-5 shot attempts for versus against. The only playoff team that fared worse this season was the Calgary Flames.

Another strike against the Habs is their power play, which has been atrocious for a long time, stretching back about as far as January 2014. This hasn’t changed during the playoffs and frankly, it needs to be dealt with. If the possession numbers were disappointing this season, the power play was worse. The Habs only converted 40 of their 243 power plays this season, a 16.5% efficiency, also 23rd in the league.

Still, when all was said and done, the Canadiens finished second overall in the NHL at the end of the regular season. The reason why isn’t really a secret.

Carey Price played a huge part in the Canadiens earning 110 points this season, putting up numbers on par with the greatest goaltending campaigns of all time. He was nominated for a Vezina and Hart trophy this season. One of the arguments as to why he’s a favorite to win both is simply, without Carey Price the Canadiens simply aren’t good. James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail put it a little more eloquently:

"[Without Carey Price, the Canadiens] would be below average… and likely wouldn’t make the playoffs – never mind win the conference.Price is quite literally lifting his team out of mediocrity with one of the better goaltending performances in recent decades."

But the analysts were convinced, a good goalie alone wouldn’t be enough to give the Canadiens a realistic chance to compete with the best in the league.

So how can a team that has trouble out-shooting and out-chancing their opponents earn a contender tag? After a strong first round showing against a plucky Ottawa Senators team, the Habs dropped three straight to the Lightning, losing the first two games on home ice. The prophecy seemed to be fulfilled.

Admittedly, Carey Price has been a big reason as to why his team has won six playoff games this postseason. In eight of his 11 playoffs starts this season, Price has allowed only two goals or less. Five times he’s held his opponent to one goal in regulation. If the Habs don’t lift hockey’s ultimate prize this season, Carey Price surely won’t be to blame, in each series he’s given his teammates at least four solid opportunities to win.

And the power play hasn’t improved much either since the playoffs started. If the Canadiens managed to score just one power play goal in their five combined opportunities from Games 1 and 3, the Canadiens could have very likely taken one of those matches.

It’s the five-on-five play, however, where the Canadiens have made major strides in the post-season. They have been as good or better than the Lightning for a majority of this series. In each of the three games they’ve lost the Habs out-shot the Lightning at even strength. Combined they took 87 even strength shots compared to Tampa’s 62 in the first three games.

But after all that, the Habs are still on the brink of elimination heading into Game 6. It’s the first time in franchise history the Canadiens have even extended a series this far after losing the first three games, and if they keep up their recent play, there’s certainly a chance that they can become the fifth team in NHL history to come back from that brink.

But with three extremely close one-goal games already played between these teams, the Canadiens are at risk of being knocked out by an unlucky bounce or a momentary lapse. That’s the danger facing the Canadiens Tuesday night, and then again on Thursday should they make it that far.

The Canadiens have been playing the type of hockey that gives them a chance to win, the question now with so much at stake is, will it pay off?

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