Thursday, December 8, 2011

Problems run deeper than the power play

Yannick Weber - The only Habs D with a power play goal
Rely too heavily on your power play and eventually, you’ll pay the price. The Montreal Canadiens traditionally have a Top 10 power play percentage that, like most power plays, suffers in the playoffs as opportunities become scarce, especially in those pesky deciding games.

In the first two seasons under Jacques Martin, only 5 teams have depended on their power play more than the Canadiens. This season, they’re 27th, 14th in the East. Basically, we’re witnessing playoff offense without the excitement and irrational dreams of a team without home-ice to start the playoffs having something beyond a hope in hell of winning the Stanley Cup. Fun times, no?

The faltering Habs power play has exposed a chronic problem of relying too heavily on it to boost an offensive system that can best be described as mediocre. The weight has been disproportionally shifted onto the defense and goaltending so that if either suffer even the slightest setback, the losses will mount and 5on5 F/A ratios be damned.

After 28 games last year, when the Habs scored 3 or more goals they were 16-0-2, not because their 2.67 goals a game average was a mediocre 17th in the league, 8th in the East but because their defense and goaltending limited teams to an unsustainable 1.93 goals against average. The saving grace was that Pacioretty, Wisniewski and Desharnais were yet to arrive.

Barring a trade, help won't be coming this time unless Campoli can replace a big chunk of Wisniewski's offense and some of Markov's while he's at it. Gomez? Who knows but I wouldn't count on an offensive rebound. In the meantime, fans can only hope Markov can actually return at some point, stay healthy and produce immediately. Anyone have Vegas odds on all that?

But I digress. This season, opponents are 14-0-1 when they score 3 or more goals while the Habs are just 7-2-4, scoring a paltry 2.43 goals a game. That’s 24th in the NHL and 13th in the East. The defense and goaltending? Also giving up 2.43 goals a game which is still a respectable 10th, 4th in the East. Problem is, respectable goals against average isn't good enough when you squeeze offense from a stone.

Now, before anyone claims the Habs only problem is the power play, the Habs at even strength are 12th in the league. Sounds good but sadly, that’s only good enough for 9th in the East. Collectively, the forwards are a combined -8 in 329 games while the defense is -1 in 175. Concerning numbers that have nothing to do with the power play but everything do with how thin Jacques Martin is cutting his offensive meat. Would you prefer dark or light gravy with that?

Physical effort – Willing vs. Capable

Hitting in itself doesn`t win hockey games but the willingness to engage physically does help create or limit offensive opportunities. Last year the Habs were 26th in hits, 23rd on the road and it was reflected in their ability to drive the net, especially without last change.

This season, the Habs are 17th in hits, 21st on the road and you can thank Emelin, Cole and Kostitsyn that it`s not a lot worse. Even with them, they`ve outhit their opponent at home in just 6 of 14 games while getting outhit in 10 of 14 road games.

Drive the net, and stay there

Now, it`s one thing to be willing to play physical but it`s another to be physical enough to drive the net and stay there, paying the price for opportunities. Comparing even strength home stats, opponents are outshooting the Habs in front of the net 21% to 18% on Bell Centre ice. Comparing respective road stats, they`re still being outshot  17% to 15%.

Considering a volume of close-in shots tends to generate more goals, or what some people want to justify as “luck”, it’s pretty obvious that limiting an opponent’s chances in front of the net also diminishes that so-called luck. Ask the Ginger, Tim Thomas in Boston about letting shooters bomb away from the perimeter when close-in shots and rebounds can be limited.

If you want to understand one of the key reasons why the Canadiens are struggling so badly at home, just look at who’s getting more prime, even strength shots on net. The only difference compared to last year is that the faltering power play has exposed a problem that’s been there all along.

Power-less play

A funny thing happens when you play physical and stop forcing your players to play passive offense. You tend to get more power plays while taking less. The Habs have improved the number of power play opportunities at home, ranking them 5th in chances but as everyone knows, they’ve squandered them with a PPG ranking of 17. Mediocre discipline at home, ranked 16th in PK time is actually a big improvement for Jacques Martin so overall, the Canadiens are ranked 2nd in surplus power play minutes. That can't slide like it has the last two years if the Habs want a playoff slot kept warm for them.

On the road, the Canadiens are 17th in power play opportunities and are tied for 30th in goals scored. Just like the first two years under Martin, their power play is deep under water on the road yet again, 26th in surplus minutes. Going into tonight, the Habs have -25:25 power play minutes on the road so you can improve the power play all you want but if your system generates negative power play minutes, it’s fool’s errand to hope salvation lays in the power play percentage getting back on track.