Strong record or not, Habs have some work to do

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When you look back at January, and really the 2014-15 season so far, things are going really well for the Montreal Canadiens.

The good news

Carey Price is generating buzz for a Hart Trophy win, not just a Vezina. Max Pacioretty keeps firing shots on goal, quite a few of which are winning games. Young players such as Alex Galchenyuk are already growing into legit everyday players while veterans including Andrei Markov show that they have something left in the tank.

It doesn’t hurt that Montreal is in a strong position to win the Atlantic Division, as they are in the thick of things and have certain advantages (such as two games in hand on Tampa Bay, which holds a slim one-point lead for the top spot).

If you look at their run since mid-December, business is seemingly booming; they are 15-4-1 since Dec. 9.

Is it luck?

Here’s the thing, though: there are some troubling signs that Montreal is just a few bounces away from a considerable run of losses. Really, it’s the same general idea that prompted Jason’s post back in October: “The Habs have been really good … except they haven’t, really.”

They’ve lost the shot differential battle in seven of their last 10 games. The deeper possession battle hasn’t gone well, either:

It’s not as if it’s merely a bad month-and-change. Montreal is in the lower-third of the NHL possession-wise, too.

The very thing that’s been going right – brilliant goaltending from Price, timely scoring from the likes of Pacioretty – might just camouflage the notion that the Habs have also been getting lucky. Their PDO – a measure of save and shooting percentage that is a decent rule of thumb for a team’s good fortune – is the second highest in the NHL. While Price certainly has the talent to inflate that number from a save-percentage standpoint, it’s still noteworthy that Montreal is getting bounces now that might not come later.

(Montreal has a 63.6 winning percentage in one-goal games, tying them with Tampa Bay for the fifth-highest mark in that regard).

source: AP
Source: AP

 

Reasons for hope

While certain stats point to what could be a scary plummet, there are some reasons to believe that the Habs might be less prone to free-falling than, say, last season’s Toronto Maple Leafs.

For one thing, they have an elite defenseman in P.K. Subban and one of the best goalies in the world in Price. There’s also a reasonable amount of forward depth to play better possession hockey.

Head coach Michel Therrien might just be the make-or-break factor in that regard, really.

As you can see here and here, Therrien has a tendency to flip-flop from doing the sort of things that make the stats community cringe (like arguably miscasting Dale Weise in a top-line role) and putting the Habs in a better position to succeed (such as opening things up during chunks of playoff time).

This isn’t to say that Therrien can just flip a switch and Montreal will become an elite possession team, yet perhaps tweaks can be made to avoid serious slippage.

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There are some signs that the Canadiens might be playing with fire if they don’t improve in certain areas, yet there’s also the argument that their style is sustainable. Do you think Montreal is a genuine contender as constituted? If not, what do they need to do to make that happen?