Analyze This: Low-wattage power play was Canadiens playoff albatross
|Montreal Gazette 11 Apr 2019 at 09:26|
You can point to the discrepancy in conference strength this season, as the Canadiens’ 96 points would have ensured a playoff appearance in the West. But, historically, there are ebbs and flows in conference strength, and the Canadiens have benefitted from the situation in the past.
For example, many will remember when Jaroslav Halak and Michael Cammalleri powered the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference final in 2010 despite finishing the season with only 88 points. They would not have qualified for the playoffs in 2009-10 if they had played in the West. It’s also worth noting that while the East boasts more elite teams than the West this season, it also has some of the weakest teams in the NHL.
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Kasperi Kapanen chases Montreal Canadiens defensceman Jeff Petry in Montreal on April 6, 2019. Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette
There’s a fair amount of legitimate criticism about how certain players performed down the stretch. And some have opined that the Canadiens — one of the youngest teams in the league — simply didn’t have enough gas left in the tank to compete during the last couple of months.
However, during the final 16 games of the season, the last 20 per cent of the schedule, the Canadiens maintained a .594 point percentage, slightly higher than their season average of .585. So, given the results, the exhaustion angle seems counterintuitive. They might have been tired, yet they managed to gain extra points from that stretch of games compared with the rest of the season.
To their credit, the Canadiens maintained some of the most impressive numbers in the NHL when it came to 5-on-5 play this season. They finished first in two very important categories, shots and shots on net, while they finished among the best in the league in several other statistics, including goals per 60 minutes of ice time.
But there is one particular issue that plagued them all season. Their power play wasn’t just bad, it was historically awful.
Strangely, the Canadiens went from one of the best teams in the league in controlling the play at 5-on-5, to a team that struggled to create much, if any, offence during the man-advantage. When we take a closer look at the results, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the Canadiens did not generate enough high-quality chances on the power play.
As the table shows, the Canadiens ranked among the worst teams in the NHL in high-danger shots, goals and high-danger goals on the power play. But before we even get to those numbers, there’s a clear discrepancy in the amount of blocked shots they had to deal with. They finished 17th in shots per 60, but 31st in shots that actually hit the net. That’s a sign that most of the shots were taken from the perimeter, which aligns with the lack of quality scoring opportunities.
But even if the Canadiens had managed to turn quantity into quality, their raw numbers on the power play raise a red flag. The Canadiens only saw a 30 per cent increase in shots on the power play compared with their 5-on-5 numbers, a shockingly low uptick.The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, had a 95 per cent increase in shots per 60 on the power play.
For a team that dominated in shots for the majority of the season, the results on the power play went beyond statistical analysis. It became a constant source of negative energy, which sapped the momentum of a team that worked quite hard to maintain control of the play.
If you’re looking to point the finger at a singular issue, look no further than the man-advantage.
In fact, if the power play were average relative to the rest of the NHL this season, the Canadiens would have scored almost 16 additional goals, which is the equivalent of at least two, and possibly three, extra wins — more than enough to qualify for the playoffs.
However, hockey rarely comes down to one issue. A healthy power play was the biggest problem facing the Canadiens, but the Nashville Predators — who somehow managed to have a worse power play this season — qualified for the playoffs. In fact, they won their division.
Simply put, the Canadiens aren’t quite at a level where they can mask their glaring deficiencies with talent and game-changing players, like the Predators did.
Despite career years from several players in 2018-19, the Canadiens were a team with a finite amount of talent that couldn’t afford to have many misfires. The margins were simply too tight to allow for such a terrible power play.
The good news is that the power play can, and should, be fixed this summer. In fact, during the last nine games of the season, the Canadiens seemed to have figured it out.
They scored the most high-danger goals per 60 on the power play in the NHL during the final stretch of the season. That was a product of quick movement from high to low, which forced goaltenders to adjust and rendered them vulnerable to a quick shot from the slot.
It’s not enough to ignore the pitiful results from the rest of the season, but it definitely points to a change in strategy that can yield many more power-play goals.