What Montreal has taught us about the North Division, playoff success

The Hockey Central panel breaks down how the Canadiens are being led by their young stars, uncharacteristic defensive mistakes by the Vegas Golden Knights, and what Montreal has to do to close the series out.

I want answers.

When it comes to sports, which inevitably reflect life, I’m fascinated by which concepts are most effective when put to the real-world test, beyond the computers and bar stools where theories are presented as conclusions. Will a defence-first veteran team beat a young offence-first team when the pressure is on? What themes run through the previous Cup-winning rosters?

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a more complicated version of early UFC events -- before all the styles blended into mixed martial arts -- where they’d pit a kickboxer versus a sumo wrestler, or a taekwondo expert against a shootfighter (remember Ken Shamrock?). It was only after we saw the real-world results that certain things revealed themselves as unimpeachable truths in practice, not just in theory. (For example, maybe being a huge immobile sumo wrestler wasn’t the ideal fighting build?)

So the Montreal Canadiens are one win away from making the Stanley Cup Final, and the debates are in full effect. If they complete a series win over the Vegas Golden Knights and make it through to the final here, what will we have learned? What’s a conclusion and what’s a blip?

Below are three varied conclusions (or near conclusions) of mine, musing on what to take away from this Habs post-season run so far.

Maybe the North Division wasn’t so bad (but let’s pump the brakes on calling it good)

There was a great piece written on Pension Plan Puppets today about the Toronto Maple Leafs by @atfulemin, which explained why the Leafs are, quite obviously, the bad guy in the movie. The crux of the idea was that they always get more than they earn, which immediately establishes them as the villain, and is 100 per cent fair. (Heck, I’m talking about them here in a Habs article.)

With that status, though, most outside the Greater Toronto Area were eager to discredit their regular season success as a product of an exceedingly soft division. Seeing the fourth-best regular season team in that division mute the Vegas Golden Knights entirely, it’s possible that “the North is garbage” narrative was a bit overdone. I think it’s more likely that the North was packed with middling teams, none of which were overly good or bad. The ceiling was low, but the floor was fairly high, and not many points were handed out for free. It wasn’t a grouping of teams from the league’s bottom-third, but more likely the mid-tier.

I realize we’ve only seen five inter-division games from this Montreal-Vegas series, so I don’t want to draw too many conclusions on it alone, but I’m growing more curious about that West Division than I am becoming willing to big-up the North. It’s possible that group really just allowed the better teams (namely Colorado and Vegas) to feast on an unthreatening diet of Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose and Arizona.

Instead of any real conclusion about the North, I find myself wondering about a team like Minnesota. It sure looked like they took a big step this year. But maybe Vegas isn’t that great, and the division was soft, and so their step forward was more like a shuffle than a leap?

Anyway, the point is the North was fine.

Mid-tier teams can go on runs in hockey (provided they’re built a certain way)

I know there’s some truth to the expression “If ifs and buts were candies and nuts every day would be Christmas,” but allow me one.

If the Habs got a bad bounce or two in Game 5 or 6 of Round 1, their team and model is likely written off as unsuccessful. I only mention that because I think there are a number of teams in NHL history who suffered that unfortunately fate and likely could’ve gone on to great things, even a Stanley Cup. Hockey can be a cruel game and no team construction is foolproof.

Yet there seems to be a type of team from the league’s mid-tier -- as I still believe the Habs to be -- that can go on a deep run (and it doesn’t seem to be the young "skilly" teams.) It’s possible that even without elite talent you can better set yourself up for the possibility of an upset.

You need goaltending, first and foremost. The Dallas Stars got it last year from Anton Khudobin. You need responsible players, which usually means veterans. You need a physical element, and you need some defencemen who defend. Montreal checks all those boxes, and other teams without superstars should aim to do the same. When you don’t have many game breakers the goal is to keep things close, which is where hockey offers some coin toss moments and hope you to win a bunch in a row.

The Habs are just patient, and reliable, and seem to be enjoying the benefit of a lack of pressure. You know how coaches always jockey for “underdog” status pre-series? The Habs are a great example why. For their opponents, not having early success as they expected has made them press and open up holes, and allowed the Habs to be opportunistic.

It’s not like they’ve been holding court in the offensive zone. But Montreal has been great in transition, using short passes on their breakouts to create speed and get looks the other way when the door is left open.

Montreal has a few other elements that are well-suited for playoffs (which I underestimated)

When a team I keep picking against keeps winning, I recognize it’s healthy to try to figure out what I’ve missed. Here are two things I got wrong about Montreal:

Both Joel Edmundson and Ben Chiarot are better defenders than I thought. I’m counting that as one thing. These are not new players in the league, and I’ve seen them both play plenty over their careers, it’s just that neither naturally attracts your eyeballs when you’re watching a hockey game. But they’ve been reliable and smart, and eminently useable in big minutes without any major breakdowns. That’s no easy feat.

The other is that what Phillip Danault is doing is pretty remarkable, and I didn’t think it was possible to shut down great players in today’s NHL a la Esa Tikkanen. Mark Stone is the type of guy built for these sorts of competitive environments, and he’s totally disappeared. His frustration boiled over after the Cole Caufield goal in Game 5, but it showed most in the in-game decisions he made (pushing for a chance down a guy against traffic) leading up to that goal. The Jets' top guys disappeared, and the Leafs' top guys disappeared, and he’s the common denominator. At some point a team may have to turn their attention to Danault and making his life difficult out there, as he just continues to fly under the radar.

As a smaller note, I’ve been impressed with Artturi Lehkonen, too. Nice player.

The Canadiens have a lot going for them at the right time. For a couple seasons now they’ve been a team that controls possession well, and paired with their stout defending and elite goaltending, they’re making life difficult on their opposition.

I may not be sold that if you re-racked the Stanley Cup Playoffs and played it all out a hundred different times with the same teams that Montreal would be doing what they’ve done here so far with much consistency. But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize they’re built in a way that allows them a chance every night, and that along with some good fortune they’ve executed exactly as they’ve needed to put them on the cusp of an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.

You can only control what’s in front of you, and they’ve controlled what’s in front of them like a puppet on strings. For that, they deserve every bit of credit they get.

Mid-tier teams can go on good runs. Mid-tier teams with responsible veterans and great goaltending are more likely to go on good runs. The North Division still wasn’t very good, but it wasn’t a joke, and this Habs team isn’t one of the five or even 10 best in the NHL. But they’re better than I thought.

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