Pittsburgh vs. Montreal
December 19th is the line of demarcation for me. That’s when Montreal’s prime mover, defenseman Andrei Markov, returned from a freak injury suffered on opening night. At that point in the season––through 37 games––the Canadiens had gone a poor but rather fortunate 16-18-3 (.473 winning percentage) given the fact that they were 8-3 in extra time. Montreal detractors––which includes essentially everyone writing or talking hockey right now, from the conventional pundits to my sabermetrically savvy colleagues at Puck Prospectus––point to the uninspiring results of those early season Price-led, Markov-less Canadiens when explaining away how fortunate the Habs were to upset the Capitals and why they have no shot against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. But you’re talking about two completely different teams. Whether conflating those two teams indiscriminately, or conflating them in the name of collecting a larger sample size, you’re bound to get fooled by these Habs, and surprised by the results.
After Markov’s return, the Canadiens finished the final 45 games of the regular season with a fine 23-15-9 (.589 winning percentage) run – as hot as any Eastern Conference team over that stretch of games, other than––of course––Washington. Even more impressively, with Markov in the lineup and Halak in goal, Montreal transformed from a team scoring 2.47 GF/game (30th in NHL) and allowing 2.88 GA/game (18th in NHL) with -0.41 GD/game (25th in NHL) to a team scoring 2.91 GF/game (8th in NHL) and allowing 2.48 GA/game (4th in NHL) with a 0.42 GD/game (5th in NHL). Sure, the team that beat the Capitals may have been the “16th overall seed”––lucky to get in the playoffs over the Rangers with a mere 88 points––but don’t get fooled: it was the 5th best team in the league upsetting the best team in the league with the help of an outstanding performance in goal.
But December 19th is not just for the Canadiens; it provides an illuminating starting point for looking at the Penguins as well. Through 36 games, Pittsburgh was a scalding 25-10-1 (.708 winning percentage), fourth in the NHL at +25 GVT, a hair’s breadth behind Washington’s league-leading +30 GVT. Yet over the next 46 games, the Pens went a tepid 22-18-6 (.543 winning percentage), their lackluster performance camouflaged by the wins and points accumulated in October and November. Keeping in mind that a .561 winning percentage is average––given the additional points given for overtime losses––you’re talking about a below average team over the course of more than half the regular season, regardless of their pedigree as defending Stanley Cup champions, regardless of their marquee exposure, regardless of their big name superstars. Perception is about as far from reality as you can get - With both teams.
With that in mind, let’s break down the matchup, using the entire season’s stats for the Penguins and Canadiens as a starting point, while keeping in mind the transformations that each team has undergone over the course of the campaign.
Pittsburgh Offense vs. Montreal Defense
Pittsburgh Even Strength Offense GVT: +25.7 GVT (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Over the course of the season, Pittsburgh scored 1.07 goals for every goal they allowed in 5 on 5 situations, good enough to rank in the top third of the league. But don’t think that this was due to two-way play – because it was due to flat out outscoring their opponents.
The list of the Penguins’ offensive contributors starts with their captain. Among several worthy competitors, Sidney Crosby (22.0 OGVT, 29.5 GVT) may well have the best case to win the Hart Trophy. A true champion, Crosby didn’t rest on his laurels after winning a championship, but came back from the offseason as an elite faceoff man and superior shootout performer. Conversely, Evgeni Malkin (12.3 OGVT, 13.8 GVT) took a step back from 2008-09, yet he still proved to be the second most valuable Penguin. Last season, the big difference for the Penguins during their scorching stretch run was the return of puck moving defenseman Sergei Gonchar from injury. Along with Crosby and Malkin, it’s Gonchar (8.3 OGVT, 11.9 GVT) who makes the Pens a complete offensive team. Trade deadline acquisition Alex Ponikarovsky (5.5 OGVT, 8.2 GVT) theoretically added a boost at even strength, but he has been disappointing as a Penguin. Among lesser lights, Pascal Dupuis (5.3 OGVT, 8.7 GVT) lifted his game this season; he has a game winning goal against the Habs this season to his credit.
Montreal Even Strength Defense GVT: -9.2 (Rank: 24th in NHL)
With Jaroslav Spacek injured, Hal Gill (1.3 DGVT, 1.4 GVT) and Josh Gorges (3.8 DGVT, 1.9 GVT) get added defensive responsibility on the blue line. As highlighted by their Game 7 heroics, Gill is 2nd in the postseason with 31 blocked shots while Gorges is 4th with 20 blocked shots. Dominic Moore (0.9 DGVT, 2.1 GVT in 21 games) and Travis Moen (2.2 DGVT, 0.6 GVT) are among the forwards that will take on key checking line roles against the Penguins’ stars.
Montreal Even Strength Goaltending GVT: +14.0 (Rank: 5th in NHL)
What else can you say about Jaroslav Halak (19.2 GVT in 44 games, .924 save percentage)? If the Canadiens ever made it to the Stanley Cup finals, there wouldn’t be much doubt about the identity of the Conn Smythe winner. Carey Price (5.3 GVT in 39 games, .912 save percentage) has had a decent season, but the only reason he should see the ice again in the playoffs is if Halak needs to regroup himself at the end of a poor outing.
Total GVT Difference: +20.9 Pittsburgh Penguins
Advantage: Pittsburgh Penguins
Montreal Offense vs. Pittsburgh Defense
Montreal Even Strength Offense GVT: -23.5 (Rank: 29th in NHL)
Tomas Plekanec (10.6 OGVT, 13.4 GVT) may be the most improved player in the NHL this season, having gone from an afterthought to the Canadiens’ best forward. Andrei Markov (5.6 OGVT, 9.6 GVT in 45 games) provides the Habs’ strongest scoring presence from the blueline, while virtual captain Brian Gionta (6.3 OGVT, 9.9 GVT in 61 games), Michael Cammalleri (6.0 OGVT, 8.0 GVT in 65 games) and Andrei Kostitsyn (3.8 OGVT, 5.7 GVT in 57 games) help provide additional scoring punch.
Pittsburgh Even Strength Defense GVT: +3.3 GVT (Rank: 9th in NHL)
Jordan Staal (5.8 DGVT, 12.3 GVT) may have been a touch overrated in the past, but he’s now reaching his potential as a superior two-way forward.
Pittsburgh Even Strength Goaltending GVT: -15.4 GVT (Rank: 23rd in NHL)
Marc-Andre Fleury is as flaky as NHL netminders come: better in the postseason (.913) than in the regular season (a below average .907 save percentage), his save percentages were a roller coaster during last season’s Stanley Cup run. In 2008-09, 11 of Fleury’s 23 postseason games featured save percentages of .900 or below – Pittsburgh lost 8 of those 11 games, but none of the games where Fleury performed at better than .900.
Total GVT Difference: +11.4 Pittsburgh Penguins
Advantage: Montreal Canadiens – see the preamble
Pittsburgh Power Play vs. Montreal Penalty Kill
Pittsburgh Power Play Offense GVT: -4.6 GVT (Rank: 27th in NHL)
Under head coach Dan Byslma, Pittsburgh has been puzzlingly poor on the power play (17.2% in 2008-09, 20th in NHL; 17.2% in 2009-10, 19th in NHL) for a team with Crosby, Malkin, Gonchar, and other gifted offensive players like Alex Goligoski (5.4 OGVT, 9.3 GVT), Kris Letang (2.8 OGVT, 6.3 GVT) and Bill Guerin (2.9 OGVT, 2.9 GVT). Gonchar and Crosby are essential to the Pens’ man advantage; Matt Cooke (2.4 OGVT, 7.0 GVT) might deserve more time; Letang and Chris Kunitz (4.7 OGVT, 6.2 GVT) should have their time cut back.
Montreal Penalty Kill Defense GVT: +1.1 (Rank: 16th in NHL)
While average during the regular season, you can’t help but be impressed by the penalty-killing display you just witnessed from Montreal. The Habs all but completely shut down the Capitals’ vaunted power play, holding a squad that had scored at a ridiculous 25.2% clip during the regular season to a measly 1 for 33 (3.0%). Scott Gomez (2.6 DGVT, 8.4 GVT) and Hal Gill are among the Canadiens’ best contributors.
Total GVT Difference: +3.5 Montreal Canadiens
Advantage: Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Power Play vs. Pittsburgh Penalty Kill
Montreal Power Play Offense GVT: +6.9 (Rank: 7th in NHL)
With the addition of rookie P.K. Subban (0.7 GVT in 2 games) to the Habs’ lineup for Games 6 and 7, Marc-Andre Bergeron (7.0 OGVT, 8.1 GVT) saw his ice time cut drastically, diminishing his role to that of a power play specialist only. Bergeron answered by scoring a key PPG in Game 7. Montreal’s 21.8% lethal power play rate ranked 2nd behind Washington’s; unfortunately, they created the least power play opportunities in the NHL.
Pittsburgh Penalty Kill Defense GVT: +7.7 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
A fine penalty killing team during the regular season, Pittsburgh allowed a disastrous 7 for 22 (68.2% PK) against Ottawa, one of the poorest teams on the man advantage in the NHL. Not much of a contributor in other facets of the game, Maxime Talbot (0.4 DGVT, -1.7 GVT) was one of the Penguins’ better penalty killers.
Total GVT Difference: +0.8 Pittsburgh Penguins
Advantage: Montreal Canadiens
Season Series Results
On the surface, the season series is another clear advantage for the Pens, having taken 3 of 4 games against the Habs and winning decisively in the goals department, 15 GF to 9 GA. A closer look is warranted though, revealing that the Penguins’ three wins all occurred by mid-December. Further, two of the three games were played in Pittsburgh and two of the three games featured early season starter Carey Price in net. That said––in one of his worst performances of the season––Halak got shelled on October 28th, getting pulled after Crosby recorded a hat trick in a 6-1 rout. To the Canadiens’ advantage is that they bested the Penguins 5-3 in their only relatively recent contest, a February 6th game that saw Marc-Andre Fleury get the hook.
Injuries and Intangibles
Even though Montreal pulled off the historic comeback from a 3-1 deficit against Washington, they can’t afford to play the Pittsburgh series from behind, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle twice. But a fast start to the series seems unlikely for the Canadiens, coming off the undoubtedly draining multi-game rally against the Capitals. Therefore, winning against the rested, playoff-tested Penguins at home in Game 1 seems highly improbable for the Habs. If that’s the case, the Canadiens will need to win four out of the next six games – Obviously, a tougher chore than four of seven. On the flip side, a Game 1 loss would be a very bad sign indeed for Pittsburgh; Montreal would definitely settle for 1-1 after two games, even more than the average playoff underdog.
While it stands to reason that Crosby, Malkin and company should be able to light the lamp against Halak significantly more than the Capitals’ doppelgangers of the first round series, the real question is at the other end of the ice, where Marc-Andre Fleury is the X factor of this series. Though the first overall pick of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft is frequently considered to be a quality netminder and though he has his name engraved on Lord Stanley’s Cup, the fact is that enigmatic goaltender––while occasionally spectacular––has been a below average performer in both of the last two regular seasons (.912 and .905 save percentages) and last two postseasons (.908, .890 to date). So while the Pens may very well make Halak look mortal, will it make a difference if Fleury gives games away to the Habs? Keep in mind that Fleury posted a .909 or better save percentage in only one game of the Ottawa series.
You can continue to kid yourself that Montreal is a sad sack “16th overall seed” that had no business beating Washington and has no chance of beating Sidney Crosby and the defending Stanley Cup champions. Or you can get aboard the bandwagon. Nous croyons!
Pittsburgh Penguins (total): +16.7 GVT (8th in NHL)
Montreal Canadiens (total): -10.7 GVT (18th in NHL)
Total GVT Difference: +27.4 Pittsburgh Penguins
Since December 19th:
Pittsburgh Penguins (total): -5.1 GVT
Montreal Canadiens (total): -2.5 GVT
Total GVT Difference: +2.6 GVT Montreal Canadiens
Prediction: Montreal Canadiens in 6 games.
Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics. Follow Timo on Twitter at @timoseppa.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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