Few sports are as effective at making small things into giant things as NHL hockey.
In a shortened season where the Montreal Canadiens finished a surprise second in the Eastern Conference in 2012-13, their notable weakness was the penalty kill.
When the playoffs rolled around, the Ottawa Senators duly exposed it, scoring six power-play markers in five games – and like the other two teams that allowed more than one power-play goal per game, Vancouver and the New York Islanders, the Habs were bounced in the first round.
The team started the current season in similarly miserable form, with the opposition scoring four times in its first 19 power-play opportunities.
Since then, Montreal has righted the ship.
They’ve also managed to misplace their scoring touch of late, but that’s a story for another day.
Let’s instead focus on an area of drastic improvement: their play when someone is in the penalty box.
The Habs took the third most minor penalties in the NHL a year ago, their first season under Michel Therrien. They’ve dialled that back a little this year (they’re eighth in that department through 22 games) but still rack up an average of 12.6 minutes in penalties per game, the seventh-highest total in the league.
The main difference: the opposition is having more trouble scoring.
Part of the explanation is the generally outstanding play of goalie Carey Price – despite his .500 win-loss record he is in the midst of maybe the best 20-game stretch of his career – whose save percentage with the team short-handed has shot up from .804 last year to .885 this season.
That’s well short of the league leaders (among regular starters Kari Lehtonen and Marc-Andre Fleury are at .928), but better than goalies like Mike Smith and Josh Harding, who is the NHL’s runaway stats leader.
It’s also the second-best number he’s posted in his career.
That’s not the whole explanation, however.
“I think we’re being more aggressive at the opposition blueline,” captain Brian Gionta said.
The added pressure is forcing other teams to regroup more often, and to move the puck more quickly than they’d like.
The Habs have also made a point of being less generous this season when it comes to zone entries and giving up the blue line, Gionta said.
“We’re mostly doing the same stuff, I think we’re just doing it better, and we’ve tweaked a couple of little things like pushing a little further up the ice on the fore-check,” said centre Ryan White, who has seen nearly double the ice time on the penalty kill that he did last season (all-purpose centre Tomas Plekanec’s minutes have also increased).
The personnel remain essentially unchanged from a year ago, with a couple of exceptions.
Max Pacioretty, the team’s leading scorer two years running, is averaging a career-high 1:38 on the penalty kill (he’s never averaged more than 0:06 since joining the league); when defenceman Douglas Murray is in the lineup, they haven’t allowed a single power-play goal while he’s on the ice (Murray has been a healthy scratch since Alexei Emelin returned from a knee injury last week).
Defenceman P.K. Subban’s detractors will suggest that he is the epitome of addition by subtraction – he has played far less while short-handed this year, although that’s not as true now as it was earlier in the season.
There’s a decent case to be made they haven’t needed him.
The Canadiens have allowed 12 power-play goals in 22 games, the fourth-lowest total in the league (they were 25th last year), and their penalty killing effectiveness has leaped from 79.8 last season (23rd best) to 85 per cent (tied for fifth).
That can seem like a minor difference in percentage terms, but it’s not.
The top penalty-killing teams in the league – and Montreal has perennially been one over the past decade – generally kill off 85 to 88 per cent of the opposition’s power plays.
“I think we’re better at drawing the other team into the areas where we want them to go, where we can defend them,” said White.
That’s partly a function of the fore-check, and also some system-related improvements from assistant coaches Clement Jodoin and Jean-Jacques Daigneault – who White said share joint custody of the penalty kill (“they go back and forth, one guy will say something, then the other will come in the next time with another improvement”).
The Habs are still allowing roughly the same proportion of power-play goals to even-strength goals as they did last year, but there’s an argument to be made that they’re not giving them up as frequently in close games.
Last season, Montreal played in 23 one-goal games, and gave up 20 power-play goals (nine in their 11 losses and 11 in their 12 wins).
This year, the Habs have an NHL worst .200 winning percentage in one-goal games (2-6-2), but it’s not because they’ve made a habit of shooting themselves in the foot with the penalty kill; in those games they have allowed a total of four power-play goals by the opposition.
On two occasions those goals stood as the winner – against Calgary and the New York Rangers – but in the latter game the Habs' pop-gun offence couldn’t score on New York backup Cam Talbot.
Nothing’s perfect in hockey or in life, but the Habs appear to have addressed one of last season’s glaring weaknesses.
They remain one of the top possession teams in the NHL, and with the goaltending they’ve been getting, they’ll comfortably make the playoffs if they manage to score at something close to their average from the past couple of years.
Easier said than done, but it should be possible.