The Canadiens had the day off Monday, which provides a handy excuse to take a step back and look at the events of the past week.
Is the team that limped so dreadfully to a 1-5-2 record well and completely recovered after piling up three wins – two of them emphatic, the third on the road – against a couple of the league’s most talented teams?
Yes and no.
Erik Cole and Lars Eller have been revelations, the defence has been hermetic, the special teams incisive, and what to say about Carey Price, the NHL’s first star of the week? Anyone still miss Jaro Halak, he of the 1-5 record and .843 save percentage?
But when you compare the numbers from the most recent string of wins to four losses earlier this season where the Habs either badly outplayed the opposition or were in a strong position to win (we refer of course to the recent Buffalo, Colorado, Florida and Toronto games), a more nuanced picture emerges.
And if you’re stats-averse, click on another story, Bub.
The Habs were two-for-15 on the power-play in those losses and a similar three-for-13 in the wins. The penalty kill has been great in the last three games (11-for-12), it was substantially worse in the losses (10-for-15), but that includes two games where the opposition scored two PPG, each ended up in overtime or shootout losses where the Habs scored at least four goals – in other words, you can’t automatically conclude they cost them the game.
There’s no clear correlation when it comes to faceoffs, another key area – in some losses they dominated in the circle, in some wins they lost the battle badly.
They outshot their opposition by an average 30 to 26.6 in the wins, and by 38.25 to 27.75 in the losses, which seems odd: shoot less, win more?
In fact, goals against and goals for are the only appreciable differences: more shots ended up going in for Montreal over the past week (11 goals in three games, including one empty-netter) than they did in the narrow losses (11 goals in four games).
Substantially fewer went in: 16, including two empty netters, in four losses, versus four in three wins. It helps they’ve blocked more shots in the wins (76) than in the losses (65). But that number is skewed by a virtuoso display by Jaroslav Spacek in the last Boston game, in which Montreal was credited with a remarkable 29 blocks – they also blocked more shots than the opposition in two of the losses.
Some of the better defence is to do with better execution, better matching-up, better goaltending, better team play. Some of it is good fortune, as you’ll see below.
Is the extra 0.8 goals per game attributable to the power-play? Not entirely. Is it attributable to the fact that guys like Rask and Bryzgalov weren’t as brilliant on the day as Markstrom and Miller? Probably.
And might there be something to the idea that after losing close decisions to hot teams they caught the Flyers and Bruins (both of whom had lost two of three) at the right time? Sure.
This isn’t to say the Habs aren’t playing way better than they were a week ago, they are.
And burying chances that were squandered a week ago is no small point, but the Habs had scoring chances by the pantload in the four losses cited above. Some of that you control, some of it you don’t, you make your own luck – until it runs out.
After all, Price has also watched a bunch of pucks ping off his posts instead of worming their way through (four in the Philly game alone, including one by Wayne Simmonds that he would hard-pressed to replicate); the Habs played plenty well enough to win in the three losses but didn’t get much in the way of breaks, including hitting several posts of their own.
The point, then, is that things are rarely as good as they seem, the same way they weren’t really as bad as they felt. Not a terribly original thought.
Neither is this: the margin between winning and losing for a team like the Habs (or the Bruins, Sabres, Leafs and even Capitals and Penguins) has become unimaginably narrow.
Which is why small things – the return of Jaro Spacek, the acquisition of a fourth-line centre who can actually win defensive zone faceoffs (Petteri Nokelainen is 13-5 in that department), a different way of communicating on the bench with the arrival of Randy Ladouceur – can make big differences.
The broader point is that in the early going of this season, hockey has become a lot like soccer in that you’d better take your chances to put a game away by going up 2-0 or 3-1 – one or two wasted opportunities can and will be fatal in close games (the Habs have played six games decided by two or fewer goals).
All of which makes it a drag to handicap games, but easier for guys in the room to rationalize when things aren’t going their way.
When Josh Gorges said last week that “we’re close”, he wasn’t wrong.