What Went Wrong: Montreal Canadiens

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Much like how it was for the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, or Buffalo Sabres it’s tough to find a way to pick on a team that just went seven games in a series. Like how it was for the Blackhawks, it’s even harder to do when you take your opponent to seven games.

For the Canadiens, what ailed them was something not so easily found in the statistics but more in the manner of play and team philosophy. After all, when you’re going up against a team that’s a virtual mirror opposite, it’s tough to crack them to win four games.

Where did Montreal go wrong? It’s more of a matter of opinion than anything else.

1. Offensive pressure? What’s that?
Jacques Martin is known as one of the better defensive coaches in the NHL and for good reason. Look at what his defensive-minded stylings did for the Habs in last year’s playoffs against the two biggest offenses in the NHL. He was able to draw up a strategy to hold up the Caps and Penguins and frustrated them to no end. When they end up against a team with more of a defensive mindset, however, it doesn’t work out so well.

Think of it like a staring contest. They’ll throw the same kind of game at each other to see who blinks, or in this case takes a penalty, first. The plan of attack was similar for Montreal. Jump out quickly in the opening minutes to see if you can catch the Bruins napping. If the Habs scored, perfect. They could sit back and defend and pull out the soccer style of defense and essentiall y “park the bus” in front of Carey Price.

For a good part of the series, Montreal was great at that as the Habs blocked 144 shots through the series, one shot shy of the Lightning for the top mark. Considering that Boston sent 243 shots on goal through the series, they had ample time to pepper the goal.

2. Too reliant on the power play
Montreal scored 17 goals in their seven game series against Boston. Six of those goals came with the man advantage. Two of those six came on 5-on-3 power plays. Montreal went 6-27 on the power play in the series and while that’s all well and good, scoring more than a third of your goals on the power play is a tough way to live life. Penalties will happen no matter what but when you’re banking on them to generate your offense, it’s a high risk way to live life in the playoffs. Fortunately for Montreal the Bruins were totally inept on the power play which gave the Habs the leeway to be more patient. If the Bruins connected at a normal rate at all in this series, there’s no way it goes seven games.

3. Playing desperate only when it was a desperate situation
When Montreal got aggressive in their offensive game it generally only came with the team down a goal late in the game. When the Habs applied themselves like that they looked awfully tough. They could get offense from anywhere be it Brian Gionta, Andrei Kostitsyn, Mike Cammalleri, Yannick Weber, or P.K. Subban. That kind of offensive desperation made the Habs exciting to watch because they do have great skill players there. It’s tough to watch guys like that have to play dump-and-change hockey most of the night only to see them get a “button” pushed late when they’re behind to finally start pushing the pressure. The Habs are a team that could’ve learned from the past that safe is indeed death.

***

Montreal is a very talented team and Carey Price was outstanding throughout this series and all season long. There are many in Montreal who share my frustrations with how Martin coaches the team (All Habs did a two part series on it in February – Part 1, Part 2) and while that’s part of the problem, what Martin does defensively is what makes the Habs as good as they are.

Unfortunately, that only makes them good enough to make the playoffs and not a serious Stanley Cup contender.

Can Golden Knights keep winning as they keep losing goalies?

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The Vegas Golden Knights confirmed today’s fearful report: Malcolm Subban is expected to miss about a month thanks to a lower-body injury suffered during another Golden Knights upset (3-2 in OT vs. the Blues) on Saturday night.

It makes for a dizzying run of turnover in the Cinderella expansion team’s net; Calvin Pickard went to the Toronto Maple Leafs as the odd man out, Subban is headed to IR, and Marc-Andre Fleury is sidelined with another concussion.

The spotlight, then, turns to Oscar Dansk, the 23-year-old goalie who stopped 10 of 11 shots against St. Louis when Subban went down with that injury.

Golden Knights GM George McPhee said the predictable, right things regarding Dansk and the situation:

“Injuries provide opportunities for others and that is the situation we have here,” McPhee said. “Our top two goaltenders are currently sidelined so we will now give our AHL goalies the chance to play in their absence. We felt Oscar Dansk performed well in relief on Saturday in his NHL debut.”

In a way, Dansk feels like a lower-level version of Subban. While Subban is/was a struggling former first-rounder, Dansk was the second-round version; the Columbus Blue Jackets made him the 31st pick of the 2012 NHL Draft.

(Hey, the 31st pick is now a first-rounder thanks to the Golden Knights, so there’s that.)

Dansk hasn’t been setting the hockey world on fire at other levels, but maybe that makes him an interesting fit for this weird situation, as the Golden Knights continue to defy odds and puck-gravity during a 6-1-0 start.

What to expect

While the Chicago Blackhawks boast the sort of firepower that could make for an unpleasant introduction for Dansk, at least the Golden Knights still have a few games remaining on their first-ever homestand:

Tue, Oct 24 vs Chicago
Fri, Oct 27 vs Colorado
Mon, Oct 30 @ NY Islanders
Tue, Oct 31 @ NY Rangers

That back-to-back to end the month could be Halloween-scary, but at least Vegas has some time to prepare. The losses are likely to come starting on Oct. 30, as they face a six-game road trip and eight of nine games away from home. That’s challenging, no expansion disclaimers needed.

How they’ve been playing

Some wonder if the Golden Knights should loosen their defensive logjam by trading for a netminder.

Rather than wading too deep into that discussion, this seems like a reasonable time to look at the Golden Knights seven games (and six wins) in.

  • One thing that stands out is Vegas’ penalty kill. They’ve been almost perfect if you exclude a rough showing in their overtime win against the Sabres (Buffalo went 3-for-5 in that game). Aside from that, they’ve only allowed one power-play goal. They’ve also only hit the penalty box three or four times most nights, with one night with just one trip and the five opportunities for the Sabres standing as the outliers.

The Golden Knights should expect more struggles in both regards, at least at times, this season. Maybe this long run of home-ice advantage and their expansion status helped avoid most whistles? Perhaps Gerard Gallant has them playing extra-smart?

  • So far, the shot counts have been pretty reasonable in five of seven games. They’ve only been heavily outshot twice so far: their first game (46 shots on goal for Dallas, 30 for them) and this past one vs. the Blues (49 for St. Louis, 22 for Vegas). That’s surprisingly competent stuff.
  • With any team enjoying success, close games can be a red flag, especially if there are OT wins. Vegas has three wins in overtime and one other one-goal win. Their 3-1 win against Boston included an empty-netter.

This isn’t to dismiss those wins, but sometimes close games are more like “coin flips,” and some of those will start going against the Golden Knights eventually.

  • The Golden Knights are a top-10 team in two luck-leaning categories: PDO and shooting percentage. That said, they’re not the top team in either spot, so it’s not outrageous to give them some credit.

***

Through some intriguing combination of competence and beginner’s luck, the Golden Knights are off to a shockingly good start.

It’s one thing to lose one goalie, but seeing both go down is brutal for any squad, let alone an expansion team. The Golden Knights have every excuse to start to fade, and were likely to see slippage even at full strength.

Even so, credit this team for being far better than anyone expected, and this hungry bunch will at least be able to point to doubtful bits like these if they need some “us against the world” motivation.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Appreciating Stamkos after he hit 600 points in Bolts’ blowout of Penguins

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The modern NHL is no stranger to star players missing extended stretches because of injuries, opening the door for “What if?” frustrations.

As glorious as the last couple years have been for Sidney Crosby, the threat of another concussion looms like Michael Myers in the bushes. Connor McDavid lost half of his rookie season. Carey Price has already dealt with serious issues of his own.

Still, you can forgive Steven Stamkos and Tampa Bay Lightning fans for being especially miffed over the years, as his issues have bordered on the freakish. Stamkos has dealt with blood clots, his most recent right knee injury that required surgery, and broke his tibia after taking this bad-luck spill in 2013:

(Even about four years later, it’s still unsettling to watch Stamkos rapidly become aware of how bad his injury was.)

Stamkos has missed playoff time and saw at least two seasons short-circuited by injuries, as he only played in 17 games in 2016-17 and 37 in 2013-14.

Heading into this season, it was reasonable to try to limit expectations; most athletes struggle in the first year after significant surgeries. Maybe Stamkos will hit a wall at some point, but so far, he’s enjoyed the best start of his career, riding shotgun with budding superstar Nikita Kucherov.

It almost seems fitting, then, that Stamkos scored his 600th regular-season point during the Lightning’s 7-1 beatdown of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even so, it’s resounding that – with all Stamkos has been through – he’s at that level at 27, and he’s done so in 595 games.

Impressive. With this incredible head start of 18 points in nine games, a healthy Stamkos might match or exceed the work he did during his best days earlier in his career. Note how dominant he was from his second through fourth seasons (while Stamkos managed 29 goals and 57 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, his fifth):

2009-10: 51 goals, 95 points

2010-11: 45 goals, 91 points

2011-12: 60 goals, 97 points

The other eye-popping stat from that run: he played in all 82 regular-season games in each of those three campaigns.

For some perspective, during the stretch of 2009-10 to 2011-12, Stamkos’ 283 points ranked second in the NHL, with only Henrik Sedins’ 287 ranking higher. His 156 goals easily led all players for that three-year stretch.

If that’s not enough to make you wonder where a healthy Stamkos might rank among the NHL’s upper echelon, consider this: from his sophomore 2009-10 season through today, he’s third in points-per-game among players who’ve played in at least 200, slightly edging Patrick Kane (1.06):

  1. Sidney Crosby (1.28)
  2. Evgeni Malkin (1.14)
  3. Stamkos (1.07)
  4. Kane (1.06)
  5. Alex Ovechkin (1.03)
  6. Nicklas Backstrom/retired Martin St. Louis (1.01)

As you can see, Stamkos ranks among six active players who’ve averaged at least one point-per-game since 2009-10.

Chances are, Stamkos will cool off mainly because, as great as Kucherov is, he’ll settle down a bit too. The Russian winger currently boasts a 29.4 shooting percentage, nearly doubling his already-impressive career average of 15.1 percent.

Still, it’s plausible that Stamkos could enjoy one of the best seasons of his career, and the interesting wrinkle might be that this stupendous sniper may serve as something of a facilitator (he currently has three goals versus 15 assists).

Now, don’t forget that Kucherov has been the catalyst for this burst, even if Stamkos makes this one of the NHL’s most scintillating symbiotic relationships. Hitting the 600-point milestone is merely a friendly reminder that Stamkos shouldn’t get lost in the elite conversation, and that hockey fans should be very, very happy to have him around.

Just stay a while this time, Stamkos. We like seeing you.

(Many stats via the wonderful resource that is Hockey Reference.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Throwing Babcock a bone? Leafs bring back Roman Polak

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Sometimes you need to zoom out from a shaky move and appreciate the bigger picture.

Mike Babcock nailed it when he described the Toronto Maple Leafs, at least at times, as dumb and fun. The Leafs currently lead the NHL with 37 goals, one more than the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning, despite Toronto playing one fewer game. Still, these young Buds also must raise Babcock’s blood pressure at times with their double-edged sword style.

Credit Babcock, then, with mostly embracing what makes this team tick. More rigid coaches would strain against such designs, almost certainly lowering the Maple Leafs’ ceiling in the process.

The Maple Leafs raised some eyebrows on Sunday by handing slow-footed, limited veteran defenseman Roman Polak a one-year, $1.1 million contract. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that the Maple Leafs slumped some shoulders.

None of these Twitter reactions are really off-base, honestly.

Polak, 31, simply isn’t an ideal fit for the modern NHL, and the Maple Leafs are very much embracing the fast, attacking style that’s (delightfully) coming in vogue.

Here’s a working theory, though: even the best coaches (at least right now) have “their guys.”

“Their guys” are often well-traveled, gritty types. Some only help teams in minimal ways while taking spots from prospects who might eventually be able to make bigger impacts. Others are even worse: actively hurting their teams whenever they get on the ice while taking spots. New York Rangers fans are currently having Tanner Glass flashbacks.

Every GM in the NHL should limit the number of “guys” available to a coach. Otherwise, they’re echoing “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” by holding an intervention at a bar.

(By this analogy, Nazem Kadri is definitely wine in a can.)

Allow a hypothesis: with some injuries surfacing and the Maple Leafs generally playing well, and roaming free, signing Polak stands as something of a reward for Babcock’s patience.

It’s not great, and here’s hoping that Polak doesn’t take meaningful ice time away from better defensemen. There are some discouraging worst-case scenarios where Polak is used as a shutdown guy who really only shuts down the Leafs’ ability to counterpunch.

Ideally, Polak is used in a limited role and Toronto remains one of the most dazzling, heart-stopping, and successful teams in the NHL. That would make everyone happy (except the Maple Leafs’ opponents).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Flyers could gain in lengthy loss of Andrew MacDonald

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It’s not right to celebrate the injury of Andrew MacDonald, but it’s fair for Philadelphia Flyers fans to at least consider the silver linings.

The oft-criticized defenseman (who was booed during warm-ups during the Flyers’ season-opener) is expected to miss four-to-six weeks after blocking a shot by Edmonton Oilers forward Mark Letestu during Philly’s eventual win on Saturday.

MacDonald, 31, tried to fight through the pain and even briefly returned, gaining praise from teammates and coaches alike. Here’s the painful-looking play that caused the injury:

Flyers fans – and fans of other NHL teams, as almost all have a contract or two they’d like to give the “Men In Black” treatment to – should remember to hate the contract, not the player.

(If you’re going to boo anyone, do so to management, as that bad deal happened right around the time Ron Hextall was transitioning to GM. It’s probably not as much on Hextall, but it’s not inconceivable that he gave a thumbs up, too.)

Anyway, with the 31-year-old on the shelf and his $5M cap hit being IR-bound, the Flyers should have plenty of room to call someone up, if they’d like. That’s where things get interesting, as the Courier-Post’s Dave Isaac ranks among those pointing out intriguing defensive prospect Samuel Morin as a potential replacement.

Morin, 22, is a towering, Pronger-sized defenseman. He could slide into some of MacDonald’s roles, as both are going to be counted on for their own-zone work more than offense. Even in the AHL, Morin was known for stacking up penalty minutes more than points, although he’s off to a higher-scoring start so far this season.

While MacDonald has struggled from a possession stats perspective (as Flyers fans will likely tell you, possibly loudly), he’s far from alone in that regard. The team is middling in possession categories, and MacDonald doesn’t look all that out of place when you consider “relative” stats in 2017-18.

It will be fascinating to see if Morin can help in that regard, and really, how he fits into the modern NHL.

A defenseman his size will need to work harder to stay in position and not get burned against faster, attacking teams. With the Flyers’ host of fleet-footed, scoring blueliners, Morin could serve as a nice change-of-pace.

(Isaac also points to Mark Alt as an option, if the Flyers feel like now isn’t the time for Morin.)

With three wins in their last four games and a five-game homestand wrapping up against the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday, the Flyers have a lot of good things going. As promising as the present can be at times, it’s still the future that makes this group most tantalizing. Perhaps we’ll get a glimpse at how Morin might fit into the puzzle, then?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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