Raise your hand if you expected the Montreal Canadiens to be sitting in third place in the Atlantic Division after 51 games this season. Anybody? I didn’t think so.
After finishing 28th in 2017-18, expectations for the Habs this year were fairly low. They traded away their two best scorers in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, and they were without Shea Weber for the first two months of the season. So you can understand why no one thought they’d be in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
The acquisitions of Max Domi and Tomas Tatar have really helped. Carey Price‘s performances in December and January have also propelled the Habs up the standings and career year’s from Jeff Petry, Phillip Danault and a few others haven’t hurt, either.
But one of the biggest reasons the Canadiens have had so much success, is because head coach Claude Julien has them playing faster than ever. They’re at their best when they’re aggressive on the puck and on the forecheck. Julien has admitted that this edition of the Canadiens isn’t the most talented or skilled, but when they work hard, they know they can go head-to-head against anybody.
“We’re a team that came into this season with the intention of changing the perception of our hockey club and what’s expected of us,” Julien told the Montreal Gazette after his team dropped an ugly home decision to the Boston Bruins in December. “And the only way we could do that was to go out and compete hard and that was the No. 1 thing we wanted to do and that’s the No. 1 thing I think people appreciated from our team. We’re a fun team to watch, we competed hard, and lately it’s just been on and off. We can’t think that all of a sudden we’re a skilled team and we can get away with just half efforts because this is too good of a league. With the parity, you’re not going to survive that way.”
And that consistently aggressive forecheck might not be easy to maintain, but they know that when they’re able to execute on that part of their game, they can force their opponents into making mistakes.
“We put a lot of pressure on teams and when you can close on a player, you force him to make decisions quickly,” Paul Byron said back in October, per the Gazette. “When you have the forwards we have — Max (Domi), myself, Artturi (Lehkonen) — pressuring the other teams it forces them to make mistakes and cough up pucks. We want to get on them fast. The more we can take time and space away from the them the more advantageous it is for us.”
Adding Luke Richardson to the coaching staff has also helped change the identity of the Canadiens. Richardson has found a way to get his group of defensemen into the rush to help create offense.
Here’s an example of Petry not being shy about handling the puck deep in the offensive zone:
The defense has also just played faster in the way they skate with the puck and move the puck, which has led to an increase in puck possession and quality scoring chances.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens are the fourth best possession team in the league behind San Jose, Carolina and Vegas. They’re also fifth in FF%, sixth in SF%, sixth in GF%, and sixth in SCF%. Those are impressive numbers considering they don’t have a superstar forward like a lot of the other teams around them in the standings. Julien has put his team in a position to succeed and he’s done it by using all five skaters on the ice.
Even though there isn’t one specific way to measure this, it’s become increasingly clear that they’ve found a way to shoot from more dangerous areas on the ice. Last season, the Canadiens outshot their opponents fairly regularly, but a lot of those pucks came from the perimeter, where you just won’t score often enough. Now, they aren’t shy about getting to the dirty areas to make life more difficult for the opposing goaltender.
If Julien’s team can continue to hold on to the puck as much as they do, while getting incredible goaltending from Price, the Habs will continue to have success.
Are they legitimate Stanley Cup contenders? No. But they’re way ahead of where many expected them to be at this point in their re-tool project.
Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.