Don’t look now, but the Montreal Canadiens are on a bit of a roll.
The Habs have won three straight games following Monday night’s 3-2 overtime decision against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The youth movement continues to lead the way as Nick Suzuki has been the team’s most consistent offensive player, while Cole Caufield has made an immediate impact with back-to-back overtime goals.
What’s puzzling about this team is that on some nights, like Monday, Montreal looks like it can match up against just about anybody. And yet, just one week ago the Habs looked like a disconnected group, missing too many regulars to give top teams much trouble.
While inconsistency has been a constant with the Canadiens this season, there is one trend that has followed the team through its ups and downs. When the Habs are getting chances off the rush, they win. When they aren’t, they lose. This is a little oversimplified, but given how much the Canadiens rely on transition offence to score, it’s proved to be a pretty good barometer of where the team is at during any given point of the season.
Let’s break it down into segments. Montreal came flying out of the gate this season earning points in nine of its first 10 games. The Habs averaged almost 10 scoring chances and two goals off the rush per game — both tops in the NHL. They played fast and opposing teams seemed to have no answer for their ability to quick-strike and counter-attack.
But then, those chances became a little harder to come by. In fairness, the numbers the Canadiens were putting up were not sustainable for any team. However, the regression hit harder than most people would have imagined.
Over the next 29 games, the Canadiens averaged three fewer chances off the rush per game and when they did get their chances, the Habs struggled to score on them. Montreal scored 19 goals off the rush in its first 10 games and then just 13 in its next 29. The Canadiens won just 11 of those 29 games and when you look at the splits this season, you see how important creating offence with speed is to the Canadiens.
Part of the reason the Canadiens’ ability to generate chances off the rush is so tied to their overall success is that they struggle to score in so many other ways. For much of the season, the Canadiens have pretty much had one strategy in terms of creating in-zone offence: Work the puck low-to-high, then fire pucks from the point with traffic at the net for screens, deflections and rebounds.
The Canadiens rank third in the NHL in shot attempts and shots from outside the slot this season. Montreal seems either unwilling or unable to attack the slot by moving the puck in the offensive zone, preferring to use the boards and the point to set up shots. This volume approach is not a particularly efficient one in terms of scoring goals at even strength, and puts more strain on the transition offence to score.
Opposing teams seem to have clued into that fact.
Only three teams rely on rush goals more than the Canadiens, who have scored 28 per cent of their goals in transition. Those teams are Florida, Vegas, and Minnesota. While you might think, ‘what’s wrong with that, those are really good teams,’ the difference is that those three teams can beat you offensively in different ways. The Panthers, Golden Knights, and Wild all rank top-five in rush goals and top-six in cycle goals. The Canadiens rank seventh in rush goals and 25th in cycle goals.
Think back to the recent three-game set the Canadiens had against the Flames. Calgary won two of the three games and held the Canadiens to seven scoring chances off the rush total in the series. Montreal averages seven per game. The Flames sat back in the neutral zone and forced the Canadiens to beat them offensively by working the puck in the O-zone. Teams who do this have had success against Montreal this season.
The Canadiens have a magic number of seven this season. That is the number of off-the-rush scoring chances they average per game and when they hit that number, they win far more often than not. When Montreal is able to break through opposing defences and attack the net with speed they are at their best.
Despite missing some impact players, the Canadiens played a solid game in their win over the Maple Leafs Monday night. Montreal hit its magic number with eight rush chances in the game, the final one sealing the win for the Habs.
With the playoffs just around the corner, the jury is still out on whether the Canadiens will be a team capable of pulling off an upset in the first round. When they attack through the neutral zone with speed, the Canadiens can be a lot to handle. When that option is taken away from them, though, they don’t have much of a Plan B to create offence.
With five games left in the regular season and a playoff spot all but assured, this would be a good time for the Canadiens to try to find new and creative ways to generate chances when setting up in the offensive zone. In the playoffs, two things disappear in a hurry: time and space. Can the Canadiens either force their style of play on an opponent or make the necessary adjustments to score in a different style of game?
Those are the big questions that may determine whether the Canadiens can topple the top teams in the North come playoff time or if they will be slowed down, shut out, and sent packing.