Change in Approach, Change in Results: The Montreal Canadiens’ Sweep

In analyzing the first round matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and the Tampa Bay Lightning, Hockey Prospectus writer and stats guru Tom Awad sided against his home town team and for the Sunbelt squad, in part due to the possession metrics which had heavily favored Tampa throughout the regular season.

The Lightning had a full season Fenwick Close of 51.7%, good for 10th in the league. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Canadiens ranked a lowly 22nd league wide with a Fenwick Close rate of 48.4%, ahead of only two other playoff combatants.

While there is certainly a lot to be gleaned from full season numbers, a full season can also be a set of arbitrary endpoints if we are not careful to look at some underlying, possibly even hidden factors that could have skewed the numbers.

48.4% Fenwick Close, I have already mentioned. The Canadiens sat at that exact same point on March 5, 2014, the day of the trade deadline (technically, they sat at 48.3%, a smidgen lower). On that day, the Habs acquired sniper Thomas Vanek from the Islanders for little of consequence. Also of note, on the previous day, Montreal added blueliner Mike Weaver from Florida for draft picks. Over the remaining 19 games of the regular season, the team’s Fenwick Close score was practically even, an improvement over the aforementioned figure. During that time, coach Michel Therrien experimented with his charges to find the balance that he would ride with into the postseason.

Sometimes, adding good players is simple. A better defenseman will allow a coach to remove one of his third pairing defenders, ideally the one who plays on the same side as the new guy. Bringing in a top line left winger can allow a team to bench their incumbent fourth liner, while bumping the rest down a slot. Of course, the real world is seldom so simple. The guy being dropped from the second to the third line may not be comfortable with the new checking roles he is ostensibly assigned to. The new defensive pairing/s may not gel quickly enough, leading to painful and costly own zone turnovers and missed assignments. Lines could lose the intangible balance that had been measured out through the preceding games of the long season.

Complicating matters, at least on the blueline, was the hand injury sustained by second pairing mainstay Josh Gorges immediately following the deadline. While the injury forced Therrien to juggle more than he likely would have preferred, it did afford him the opportunity to test new pairings, some of which worked. Former Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban, normally partnered with the injured Gorges, got some additional time with Andrei Markov, his regular partner in crime on the power play. Markov’s regular partner, Alexei Emelin spent time with the likes of Jarred Tinordi and Francis Bouillon before Markov and Emelin were reunited. With that shutdown pairing carved in stone, Therrien focused his tinkering on finding a partner for Subban and choosing between Tinordi, Bouillon, newcomer Weaver, Douglas Murray and Nathan Beaulieu for his third pairing. While Subban never found an adequate replacement for Gorges – and in fact saw significantly reduced ice time during his absence, with three of the four regular season games in which he played less than 20 minutes coming during this stretch – Gorges would return with three games to go in the regular season to solidify the top four. For the final pairing, Weaver did not take long in gaining the trust of his coach, while Murray and Tinordi both found themselves on the short end of the numbers game. Francis Bouillon, who had spent 11 of the 12 games leading to the trade deadline as a healthy scratch, proved to be a good fit on the revamped blueline, going so far as to score his only two goals of the season down the stretch.

In summary, by simply replacing Murray with Weaver on the blueline, the Habs were able to replace a possession sieve (-15.8 relative Corsi – even as he generally got to face the opposition’s bottom line) for a player who nearly broke even while facing above average competition in tough situations. Considering the absolute putridity of Murray’s Corsi scores compared with Weaver’s, and giving each man around 12 minutes per game (rounded for back of the envelope calculations), Montreal should expect to regain approximately 3.5 Corsi events per game from the switch.

Looking at the forwards, Therrien may once again have been nudged into experimentation as the trade for Vanek neatly coincided with an injury to energy liner Brandon Prust. A second energy liner, Travis Moen, was likewise lost to injury a few weeks later. Note that both grinders were among the worst possession players among Montreal’s regular forwards.

Vanek was quickly slotted into the new top line with center David Desharnais, long since restored from the doghouse that was his home through the season’s first six weeks, and sharp shooter Max Pacioretty on the left wing. The man Vanek had displaced, mighty mite Brendan Gallagher, was moved to the second line, playing with Tomas Plekanec and Alex Galchenyuk. To make room for Gallagher, another little man, Brian Gionta, was shifted to the third line. Gionta, having suffered through an abysmal season in terms of possession, although mitigated by extremely tough shifts, was theoretically better protected by the lesser assignments he would be taking as a third liner. The new third line now constituted Gionta, along with Rene Bourque and Lars Eller – all three having suffered through below-par seasons. Completing the picture, Daniel Briere, signed for his long history of playoff success, was shifted to the fourth line after having spent much of the season flitting between the second and third units. By the end of the season, after Moen was injured, the fourth line solidified around Briere, Dale Weise – himself having only arrived in Montreal through a February trade with Vancouver – and Michael Bournival. Before the playoffs began, Therrien had to shuffle once more, as Alex Galchenyuk went down to an injury just as Brandon Prust returned. Hoping to create more space on the ice for the undersized Gallagher, Prust became Galchenyuk’s direct replacement – at least for the duration of the first round series against Tampa Bay.

Prior to this season, one of the primary knocks against the Habs was an overabundance of little guys – particularly up front – leaving the team unable to compete (read as maintain puck possession) against bigger, stronger opponents. Desharnais, Plekanec, Gallagher, Briere and Gionta are all listed at under 6-0” and under 200 lbs. In fact, Plekanec is the only one of the five who even exceeds 180 lbs while Desharnais and Gionta are among the shortest skaters in the NHL. Prior to the trade, each of the top two lines had a pair of little guys.

Now, with Vanek listed at 6-2”, 205 lbs, Desharnais was provided with over 400 lbs of buffer on his wings. It certainly helped that both Vanek and Pacioretty are very talented goal scorers. With Gallagher joining Plekanec on the second line, there was still a size deficiency there, but in this case, the Galchenyuk injury was actually a blessing in disguise. While the young talent is not small, he does not play a big man’s game. By replacing him with legitimate tough guy Prust, both Plekanec and Gallagher had more room to maneuver. It was no surprise then that both players had far better possession numbers alongside Prust in the postseason than either did during the regular season. While the sample size is too small to make much of the actual playoff numbers, suffice to say that they are all solidly in the black. It is also no surprise that the pair combined to score five goals in the opening round sweep.

The third line switch from Briere to Gionta did not have a marked effect on team play, although the resurgence of Bourque, who scored three goals against Tampa after only lighting the lamp nine times during the regular season, was certainly appreciated by his teammates. Finally, while the fourth line is no longer a bruising trio, between Briere, Wiese and Bournival, there is enough of a combination of skill and jam that the opposition cannot simply take a shift off. If Galchenyuk can return from his knee injury for the second round, it is likely to be at the expense of Bournival. If not, the line has already paid dividends in the postseason, combining for two goals, including Weise’s overtime winner in game one.

Add all of the above to a stud between the pipes in Carey Price – who did not even play to his best in the opening round, stopping a paltry 90.4% of shots – and it becomes less surprising that the first round ended as it did. In fact, considering that Price can play better than he has, the Canadiens may be able to take their game up another notch, a necessity against the Boston Bruins, a far stronger team through traditional measures, advanced measures and the scouting world, than the team Montreal has already eliminated.

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