The Montreal Canadiens have lost yet another hockey game, this time giving up a total of three third period goals to the Buffalo Sabres en route to a 4-2 loss. This is the team’s fourth straight loss, as they fell to the Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets (twice!!!) before the All Star Break.
This is the Canadiens team that won it’s first nine games, and entered the month of December with a 19-4-3 record. They were tied with the Dallas Stars for first in the league. Now, they’re losing four straight games to teams that are in the bottom of the league standings, and the losing isn’t exactly new.
Falling out of a playoff spot is rare enough; good NHL teams usually manifest themselves in playoff spots by November 1st, while bad teams are usually out of the running by then as well. Teams do beat the odds, and qualify for the playoffs (or fall out of the picture) late in the season from time to time. It just isn’t very common.
This collapse by Montreal, however, would be historic. How historic, you ask? Well, no other team in the league has ever gone from “good” to “bad” as drastically as the Canadiens have this year.
To say that Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien are in a deep pile of horse manure is a bit of an understatement, especially since they really only have themselves to blame for the absence of Carey Price. People have been calling for Therrien to be fired for quite some time now, and Bergevin is going to be on the hot-seat if the team misses the postseason; most of the core players are in their prime right now.
New leader in the Sadness Sweepstakes. pic.twitter.com/qmrZKz5RMl
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) February 4, 2016
At this point in the year, the Canadiens are five points out of a playoff spot, and the team they’re chasing has a game in hand. Micah Blake McCurdy has the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference this year totaling 94 points. In order to hit that plateau, the Canadiens would need to finish the season 19-7-4, earning 70% of the possible points.
(Note: a couple variations of 19-7-4 would work too; the team could go 21-9-0, or my personal favorite, 12-0-18. Loser point for the win.)
Picking up 42 points in 30 games is not easy. From 2005-2016, only 11 out of 330 teams have managed a points percentage of 70% or higher. That’s 3.3%. Obviously, in the short-term, the chances of such a run happening are probably a little bit higher, given random variance and all that. Heck, they opened the season at a 79% points percentage, so it’s technically possible, but at this point, it just really doesn’t seem likely that they’ll be able to go on such a run again.
Barring a miracle, the Canadiens will not be making the postseason this year. It really is kind of sad, too, because after being one of the league’s worst possession teams the past couple of seasons, the Canadiens actually jumped to 4th in the league with a scored adjusted Corsi For percentage of 53.2%. They went from depending on a world-class net minder to actually being a team capable of holding their own against top competition.
The world-class goaltending is gone, though, which is a huge reason for the team’s slump. Carey Price has been out due to injury since late November, and the Canadiens have had absolutely horrendous goaltending ever since.
Rookie Mike Condon was doing a splendid job in the backup role, but started to struggle when he was asked to step into the starting role. In the 35-games the 25-year-old has played, he’s posted a .905% save percentage in all situations. Dustin Tokarski has seen NHL action as well, though nowhere near as much as Condon; he has a .878% SV% in six games. There’s also Ben Scrivens, who was brought in via a trade to help take pressure off of Condon. Scrivens has been just as bad as Tokarski, posting a .873% SV% in four games.
With Price out of the lineup, the Canadiens have a .891% SV%, which is essentially below replacement level. Montreal’s goalies have been horrendous this year; there’s no way around it.
This terrible goaltending has coincided with some black magic on the other end of the ice, as the goal-scoring ability appears to have disappeared. The Canadiens have only converted on 5.9% of their shots since December 1st, the lowest total in the league. At the start of the year, they were scoring on 11% of their shots.
Using war-on-ice.com’s date tool, we can pull data on how each team over the past decade has performed in the two date ranges we’ve set up for the Canadiens (from the start of the year to Dec. 1st, and from Dec. 1st to now), in order to see if there’s a historical comparison point for us to work with.
There isn’t. The Canadiens’ 5.1% decrease in their shooting percentage is the largest drop any team has experienced in the past decade. The only other team that really comes close is the 2009-2010 Calgary Flames, but even then, Calgary’s shooting percentage stayed over 7%. Montreal’s has fallen to below 6%.
The drop in save percentage from .922% to .879% is the 5th worst decline of the past decade: only the 2014-2015 Los Angeles Kings, 2015-2016 New York Rangers, 2007-2008 New York Rangers, and 2005-2006 Phoenix Coyotes had steeper drop-offs.
Overall, Montreal’s PDO slid from 103.3 in their first 26 games to 93.8 in their next 26 games. That drop of 9.5 percentage points is the largest decrease of the past decade; no other team even reaches seven. Their 93.8 PDO is also the lowest total over the past decade, by a full two points.
Those extra two points are a huge deal when talking about PDO; the difference between a 100.0 team and a 102.0 team is big. Montreal hasn’t just been the unluckiest team of the past decade; they’ve been so by a huge margin.
The craziest thing about this entire situation is that the Canadiens have barely changed how they play (at 5 on 5, at least). Here are some of their 5 on 5 rate stats, split between the two groups of games.
The Canadiens allowed a bit more shot attempts in the latter half, but also generated a tad more high danger chances; overall, there was very little change in the way the Canadiens played hockey.
Despite being on one of the biggest slides in NHL history, the Canadiens made zero change to their gameplan. Despite being entirely unable to get a favorable bounce, the coaching staff felt it best to just keep doing the same thing, over and over again.
I can’t help but picture Michel Therrien in his office game after game, doing something similar to this.
Now, it’s unfair to fault Therrien and company for not making changes to his strategy, especially not when we often criticize coaches and management for making drastic changes due to random variance and puck luck.
Still, it’s hard to not look at how Bruce Boudreau has handled a low PDO this season (by changing to a strict neutral zone trap and restricting chances against), and how the Ducks are now in a playoff spot, and wonder if Therrien could have done more to help his team.
(Note: Arik Parnass has a piece on Montreal’s power play up on his website that you should read. It does a great job of breaking down where the team has gone wrong with the man advantage this season, especially with regards to P.K. Subban.)
The past is the past, though, and at the end of the day, the Canadiens have to find a way to get 70% of the points out their remaining 30 games. They’ll probably have to do this without Carey Price, who is the reigning MVP and the only reason why the team made the playoffs last season.
This doesn’t mean that Montreal is a bad team. In fact, they probably are a pretty good team. They’ve also been the unluckiest team of the decade, which is why they probably won’t make the playoffs this season.
Good hockey teams do not always win games, and they don’t always make the playoffs. The best team in the league only wins the Cup once every five years, and has a 1 in 50 chance of missing the postseason altogether.
The Los Angeles Kings did not make the playoffs last season, despite being one of the league’s better teams. They are first in the Pacific Division this year, mainly because general manager Dean Lombardi didn’t panic during the offseason, and the core of the team was kept intact.
If Bergevin thinks he can win with this roster (as he should), his best course of action is to just keep the core together, and keep Therrien behind the bench. Keep playing strong 5 on 5 hockey, come back next season with a healthy Carey Price, and make a run at the Stanley Cup.
Puck luck in hockey is a crazy thing. The Canadiens have been the unluckiest team of the past decade, and are likely going to miss out on the postseason because of it. They’ve still got a chance to make the playoffs, though, and it really would be something to watch if they managed to go on a late season run, and slide into the postseason.