Putrid power play might doom Canadiens’ playoff dreams

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Most times, when an NHL team is struggling, players will try to explain things away with buzzwords.

You’ll hear the sort of phrases that will get a lot of heads nodding – probably that of the head coach, in particular – which Andrew Shaw deployed in pondering the Montreal Canadiens’ struggles in trying to cement a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“We’ve had bad starts, we’ve had bad periods, we’ve had bad shifts,” Shaw said after Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Islanders, according to NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “That hunger, that bite, it’s not there. It’s not where we need to be. We need to be a playoff team right now, and it looks like we’re just going out there and playing.”

Most signs point toward success

Talking about “that hunger, that bite” works, and probably gets some stomachs rumbling around dinner time. But effort (or a lack thereof) isn’t really a useful explanation for why the Canadiens have gone 6-9-0 in their last 15 games, placing them in what looks to be a really tight battle with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the East’s final playoff spot.

[More: The Push for the Playoffs details where the Habs rank.]

Sure, it’s sometimes difficult to look at numbers and tell the story of effort, but some of the telltale signs are there that Montreal’s still playing hard.

Since Feb. 9, Montreal’s been a high-end possession stat team by Natural Stat Trick’s metrics, just like they have overall the long haul of the season. While they “only” rank 11th since Feb. 9 at controlling the percentage of high-danger chances in a game, generating 52.05 percent is still very healthy.

What’s been going wrong, then?

If you’re wondering about goaltending, it’s not the biggest problem. Carey Price hasn’t been at his peak lately (.911 save percentage since Feb. 9), but he hasn’t been totally letting the Canadiens down.

The glaring problem

Instead, it’s pretty simple: Montreal’s power play has been abysmal.

During this slump, the Canadiens have gone 3-for-41 on the power play, which ends up being a putrid 7.3 percent success rate. That’s the worst mark in the NHL during that span since Feb. 9, with the Vancouver Canucks (8.3 percent) ranking as the only other team below double digits.

While Shaw can bring up elbow grease and sticktoitiveness, Claude Julien should be exploring answers to the power play question. To be specific, what’s been going wrong?

  • To some extent, this is just bad luck. Even the league’s most predictable, skill-low power plays should operate at much higher than 7.3 percent over the long haul.
  • That said, maybe there’s something systemic.

Personally, when I see that a team’s power play is ice cold, I usually check to see who’s shooting. Chances are, a power play might struggle because too many shots are coming from defensemen firing on low-quality opportunities.

That seems to be the case with Montreal, leading to a hypothesis: Shea Weber‘s booming shot is probably a curse disguised as a blessing.

During the 16 games since Feb. 9, Weber has 16 PP SOG, double that of the second-highest total (Jonathan Drouin‘s eight in 15 GP).

In the 54 games before this slump, Drouin leads with 33 SOG on the power play, followed by Tomas Tatar‘s 31. Weber’s numbers are more limited because of his lengthy bout with injuries, yet it’s interesting see that he generated 14 in 31 games. That’s less than one every two games, versus the one-per-night Weber has averaged during these tough 16 games.

None of this is to say that the Canadiens should stop Weber from shooting on the power play altogether. He really does boast a pretty unique weapon. Despite missing all of those games, he still has 11 goals in 2018-19, and actually just scored the 200th of his fantastic career.

But maybe the Canadiens are telegraphing their attempts to Weber too much.

Things were more effective when shots were dispersed more communally, with the highest-end scorers like Drouin, Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, and Max Domi leading the way. Maybe the Canadiens would be best served pretending that Weber is just another PP QB, and use him a lot like they did with Jeff Petry?

***

Since Feb. 9, the Canadiens’ 43 goals ranks 12th-worst in the NHL, but if you zero in to even-strength, Montreal’s 39 goals comes in at 13th-best.

So, the comforting part of all of this is that the Canadiens have generally been playing well, only that their power play’s been a disaster. The less-comforting part is that, if they don’t figure things out soon, that man advantage might be enough of a disadvantage to derail their playoff hopes.

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.