Why the Canadiens’ power play continues to sputter

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Vancouver Canucks' Erik Gudbranson, left, collides with Montreal Canadiens' Max Domi. (Graham Hughes/CP)

The Montreal Canadiens are arguably the surprise of the 2018-19 season. They hung at the edge of a playoff spot early in the year when Carey Price was struggling, and since captain Shea Weber returned from injury and Price returned to form, they’ve been on an absolute roll, posting the NHL’s third-best record (tied with the Winnipeg Jets) since Dec. 1 at 20-9-1.

Combine that with the third-best score-adjusted Corsi in the NHL, according to Corsica, and you have a team that isn’t just a surprise playoff team, but one that may actually make some noise in the post-season.

The Canadiens were expected to struggle to score this season, and that hasn’t really been the case. They’re currently 13th in the NHL in goals with 167, so about average, but they’re seventh in 5-vs-5 goals with 124, so they haven’t had an issue scoring at normal game states.

What has been an issue for the Canadiens has been the power play.

Ranking 30th of 31 NHL teams, scoring on just 13.3 per cent of their opportunities, the Canadiens’ power play has been dreadful all season, though it has seen a bit of a jolt over the last five games since Jesperi Kotkaniemi started getting more ice time.

Clearly, the Canadiens don’t have much difficulty outplaying teams at even strength. They have good depth and several players who are capable of putting the puck in the net with regularity, so what exactly is wrong with the power play? Why are they so bad there?

Looking at the offence the Canadiens generate on the power play compared to the league average, they’re clearly a below-average power-play team, but they climb up to around average in both scoring chances and cycle chances per 60, ranking 17th and 18th in the NHL, respectively. They only complete the 25th-most slot passes in the league, but the number of cycle chances they generate suggests that of the few they do complete, they are relatively strong at converting those passes into shot attempts.

Where the Canadiens struggle most is getting pucks on net, both from the high slot and inner slot/high-danger area. They rank 29th in high-danger chances, 25th in scoring chances on net, and 30th in the percentage of scoring chances that actually hit the net.

The Canadiens aren’t the most accurate team by any stretch, with 23.9 per cent of their scoring chances missing the net, but that only ranks 20th in the league. Where the problem really seems to lie in converting their chances into shots on net is in getting through shot blockers.

Nearly 25 per cent of the Canadiens’ scoring chances on the man advantage have been blocked this season — the second-highest mark in the league ahead of the Nashville Predators, who coincidentally have the only power play worse than Montreal’s.

With Nashville it appears to be a case of not working hard enough to get good shooting lanes on the power play, as the Predators complete only 14.9 offensive zone dekes per 60 minutes, the lowest mark in the league. Montreal completes 27.8, the fourth-most, which isn’t that surprising when you consider the high-end stickhandling skill of players like Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi, Tomas Tatar and Joel Armia, who is shockingly good at it.

The Canadiens could use some more puck movement with passing on the power play, but they’re excellent at skating with the puck, yet a huge percentage of their chances are still blocked. That could be a case of bad decision-making by shooters, but it would be a hypothesis more than a fact.

The Canadiens also have an advantage on the power play that most teams don’t have — the shot of Weber. Zdeno Chara, with the right stick and infinite time to wind up, can blast the puck harder than Weber can, but when it comes to firing off one-timers quickly, I don’t think anyone in the league can put the weight on them Weber can, and the fear of his shot is very real.

The Canadiens’ shots from the slot are blocked an incredible amount, so you would expect their point shots to be blocked equally as often, right? Actually, they drop all the way down to the league median at the 16th-most blocked. You have to have a bit of reckless abandon to want to get in front of Weber’s shots.

Unfortunately, the Canadiens have been the least accurate team in shots from the point in the NHL this year. That has been leading to a lot of bouncing pucks coming back up the boards and out of the zone, forcing the Canadiens to regroup and re-enter the offensive zone.

Luckily, the Canadiens have the seventh-highest controlled entry success rate on the power play this season at 68.3 per cent — significantly above the league average of 64.9 per cent — so it hasn’t been an entry problem like years past.

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I think beyond the granular data, the bigger issue with the Canadiens’ power play is that they haven’t yet found a way to convert a roster built to attack off the rush into a cohesive unit that can score with regularity while in control of the puck on extended offensive zone possessions.

The Canadiens at 5-vs-5 are just average at scoring off the cycle, but create the fifth-most scoring chances off the rush in the league, scoring on a disproportionate amount.

My instinct in using the eye test was that they defer to Weber and Jeff Petry for point shots too often because of their heavy shots. That’s partially true with only 51.1 per cent of their overall shot attempts on the power play coming from the slot, which ranks 23rd in the league and a ways away from the league average of 55 per cent. But Weber scores from the point at the same success rate as the average NHLer does from the high slot, so even if this were the main problem, you would expect the Canadiens to be around 20th in shooting percentage on the power play, when in actuality they’re 27th.

The power play was the one thing that the Canadiens got right last season, but I think this is the one area where losing both Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty at once has really hurt them.

Pacioretty wasn’t a huge power-play scorer, but his presence in the high slot always drew coverage because of his lethal shot, while Galchenyuk had a lethal one-timer from the half wall on his weak side that both Petry and Drouin were adept at setting up.

This season the Canadiens don’t really have any dedicated power-play snipers, with net-front guys like Andrew Shaw and Brendan Gallagher scoring at the same rates as primary playmakers like Domi and Drouin, just trailing Tatar.

Tatar is a strong goal scorer, but isn’t a premier one-timer option, and if he’s your first option as a shooter on the power play, I think this might be more of a personnel issue than anything. The Canadiens are a good team, but they do lack an elite goal scorer, and it shows here.

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