If the Montreal Canadians have proven one thing over the past four games it’s that they can hang with the Vegas Golden Knights. That, in itself, is more than most people expected from the winner of a supposed weak division. Yet, here we are in a series that is tied 2-2 with Game 5 coming up Tuesday night in Las Vegas.
Three of the four games in this series have been decided by one goal and two of those games required overtime. Vegas was the better team in Games 1 and 3, Montreal the better team in Games 2 and 4. If you are superstitious, I guess this means Vegas has the edge going into an odd-numbered Game 5. However, we prefer analytics over anecdotal so let’s take a look under the hood to see if one team has an advantage heading into what is now a best-of-three series.
Let’s start with the obvious one: goals. Vegas has scored 10, Montreal eight. If you told the Canadiens that the only Golden Knights forwards with goals through four games would be Mattias Janmark and Nicholas Roy, you probably wouldn’t blame them for thinking the series might already be over. However, the Vegas defence has come up big, scoring seven times through four games. Alex Pietrangelo has been a weapon for the Golden Knights with three goals in the series to lead all players. That said, Montreal has done a great job of keeping Vegas' top offensive forwards quiet. Mark Stone still doesn’t have a point in the series.
Phillip Danault, who has finished inside the top-10 in Selke voting each of the past three seasons, has done a terrific job against Vegas’ top line in the series. Danault and Stone have been on the ice together for just over 32 minutes at 5-on-5 and in those minutes the Canadiens have outshot the Golden Knights 24-12. Neither team has scored a goal. Consider that a win for the Canadiens and Danault who has done a terrific job quieting the opposition's best offensive players throughout the playoffs. Vegas will have the benefit of last change in Game 5, so expect head coach Pete DeBoer to keep Stone away from Danault as much as possible.
In addition to their mostly solid even-strength defensive play, the Canadiens' penalty kill is a perfect 11-for-11 in this series and has killed 27 straight penalties dating back to the opening round against Toronto. Montreal has not allowed a power play goal against in 11 straight games, which is a playoff record.
Jonathan Marchessault, who has one assist and five shots in the series, acknowledged that the Golden Knights forwards need to step up in Game 5.
“It’s not good enough with the forward group we have to have only three goals in four games,” said Marchessault. “Obviously, we’re facing an unbelievable goalie, but that’s no excuse.”
Conversely, the Canadiens have had no problem finding offence from their forwards, who have scored all eight Montreal goals in the series. Habs defencemen, meantime, have combined for just three assists. Montreal is built on balance and has goals from three of its four lines in the series. In terms of expected goals, all four lines have produced a similar total, which reflects how spread out the scoring chances have been for this group.
The Golden Knights are getting offence from their defence while the Canadiens have relied on a balanced attack in their forward group. The differences don’t stop there, either. Vegas has made a point of getting traffic in front of Carey Price in this series. The Golden Knights have put 35 shots on net that have screened Price. This counts shots where Vegas players or Montreal defenders have screened Price before the shot on goal.
Brayden McNabb’s goal in Game 4 came on a shot where Price was screened by his defenceman, Joel Edmundson.
Price has shown that if he can see it, he’s likely going to stop it so you can bet the Golden Knights will look to get bodies in front of him as much as possible in Game 5.
If you’re a Habs fan wondering why Montreal isn’t doing the same to Vegas' goalies, don’t look at its lack of screened shots as a negative, necessarily. First, Montreal has done an excellent job of generating high-danger shots while also keeping Vegas' shooters outside the most high-danger scoring area on the ice, the inner slot. Despite being outshot 127-107 in the series, the Canadiens have the shot advantage in the inner slot, leading Vegas 31-25. These shots include the multiple breakaway goals in the series, like the one Paul Byron scored in Game 4.
Roughly eight per cent of screened shots have resulted in goals during the playoffs. While several teams emphasize getting traffic in front of the net, this tactic is far from the most efficient way to score. If the Canadiens can continue to win the net-front battle in terms of inner slot shots and produce quick-strike chances in transition, they will have a good chance of coming back to Montreal with a 3-2 series lead. Montreal’s last five goals have all been scored inside five seconds of the puck being in play in the offensive zone. By comparison, Roy’s overtime winner in Game 4 came after 33 seconds of sustained offensive zone time for Vegas.
The Golden Knights will likely spend more time with the puck in the offensive zone than the Canadiens in Game 5, but that will only benefit them if they can find a way to produce quality shots and limit the type of turnovers that feeds the Canadiens' deadly transition game.
Both teams have played well enough to win two of the four games in the series. The Canadiens and Golden Knights are scoring goals in different ways, but neither team has shown that one should be favoured over the other. Vegas will have the benefit of a packed Fortress to energize them in Game 5, but Brendan Gallagher and the Canadiens are perfectly comfortable with where things sit heading into it.
“There’s certain expectations on their side and the longer this series goes, the more pressure falls on them,” Gallagher said. “As the series goes on, we get more and more comfortable in these situations and we’re looking forward to it. We’ve shortened it to a best-of-three.”
Historically, the winner of Game 5 in a best-of-seven series that was tied has gone on to win the series 76 per cent of the time.