How Montreal’s defence has been responsible for surprise playoff run

Mark Spector joined Sportsnet Central to discuss Vegas needing a better start in Game 3, how the Golden Knights can beat Carey Price more often, and whether or not his opinions of the Montreal Canadiens have changed throughout the playoffs.

The Montreal Canadiens are seven wins away from doing what was unthinkable less than one month ago — winning the Stanley Cup. So, how are they doing it?

It seems just about every one of Dominique Ducharme’s coaching decisions has worked out, no matter how controversial. Montreal has received balanced scoring throughout its lineup and of course, Carey Price has been a huge driver of the team’s success. However, a somewhat overlooked aspect of the Canadiens’ success has been team defence.

After a rocky first few games of the playoffs, the Canadiens have completely locked things down in front of Price. As well as Price has played, an argument can be made that team defence is most responsible for Montreal’s success.

While the Game 2 win over Vegas wasn’t the Canadiens’ best defensive effort of the playoffs, it was good enough to earn them a split ahead of Friday’s game at the Bell Centre. The chances they did allow were thwarted, for the most part, by Price who was his usual brilliant self. Montreal allowed 31 shots in Game 2 and nearly half — 12 — came from the high slot. This is a medium-danger area where the league average shooting percentage hovers around 12 per cent, year over year. That said, Montreal only allowed four shots on goal from the most high-danger scoring area on the ice, the inner slot. Roughly half of all goals are scored from this net-front area, year over year.

Since Game 4 of their series against the Maple Leafs, the Canadiens have allowed an average of 4.4 inner slot shots per game, which is the fewest of any team in that time. Montreal has also allowed the fewest slot shots and rebound scoring chances.

Yes, Price has been a rock in goal for the Habs, but the defensive effort in front of him has been every bit as impressive.

What makes the numbers above even more remarkable is the state of the group of defencemen largely responsible for them. Jeff Petry, bloodshot eyes, mangled fingers, and all returned to the Canadiens lineup for Game 2, playing just over 20 minutes. In Petry’s 5-on-5 minutes, the Canadiens outshot Vegas from the inner slot 4-1 and outscored the Golden Knights 2-1. Petry earned an assist on Tyler Toffoli’s goal and started the breakout on Paul Byron’s breakaway goal that proved to be the game-winner.

Shea Weber has been dealing with a thumb injury amongst other bumps and bruises and is still logging 25 minutes per night. Ben Chiarot ate over 27 minutes in Game 2 and led all players in hits with nine. Joel Edmundson, Erik Gustafsson, Brett Kulak, and Alexander Romanov have had their ups and downs throughout the playoffs, but as a whole, the Canadiens defence corps has performed better than expected. Jon Merrill saw his first action in Game 2 since suffering an injury in Game 5 against Toronto.

Merrill, who played just under 13 minutes Wednesday night, believes a silver lining with all the injuries has been an understanding of the sacrifice necessary to win in the playoffs.

“At this time of year everyone is sacrificing their bodies,” said the former Golden Knight. “And it definitely creates an intensity and a will to want to do whatever it takes to win for sure.”

In addition to the solid play on the blue line, Montreal’s forward group also deserves its fair share of credit for the team’s overall ability to limit chances against. Whether it’s winning puck battles in the defensive zone, breaking up passing plays, or turning attacking forwards back at their defensive blue line, the Canadiens forward group has rarely sacrificed defence for offence in these playoffs. Strong defensive play has actually led to several offensive chances for the Canadiens.

The Canadiens’ stellar defensive play has also carried over to a penalty kill that is red-hot. Since Game 4 of the Toronto series, Montreal has killed 21 consecutive penalties. From winning face-offs to denying zone entries, recovering shot attempts, and keeping pucks out of the slot area, Montreal’s penalty kill has been excellent in almost all critical areas.

Given how well Montreal has been able to keep its playoff opponents out of the critical scoring areas on the ice, it comes as no surprise the Canadiens have been close to unbeatable when scoring the first goal of the game. Montreal has won nine of 10 games in which it scored the first goal. It has lost all three games when allowing the first goal.

Continuing this trend of scoring first will be a major focal point for the Canadiens tonight. Montreal has played its best hockey of the series against Vegas in the first period. In the opening 20 minutes of Games 1 and 2, the Canadiens outshot the Golden Knights 24-13 overall and 8-1 from the inner slot. While Montreal failed to capitalize on its hot start in Game 1, it scored twice in the opening frame of Game 2. The Canadiens are comfortable playing with a lead, bending but not breaking, and if Montreal can score first in Game 3 it will go a long way in improving its chances of taking a 2-1 lead in the series.

Offensively, the Canadiens have forwards who aren’t afraid to get dirty in front of the net. Defensively, Montreal has size on the back end and continues to do an excellent job of keeping chances out of that high-danger, inner-slot area. As you can see in the graphic below, the more dangerous the shots have become in this series, the more things have tilted in Montreal’s favour.

The Golden Knights had trouble producing chances from the inner slot in the first round against the Minnesota Wild. Minnesota pushed Vegas to seven games in large part because it won the net-front battle. Montreal has had the same type of success through two games against Vegas and team defence is a big reason why.

Like many final four teams before them, the Canadiens can credit their playoff success to strong play from the goaltending position out. Price will have to continue to play at the level he has for Montreal to have a shot at advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, but the defensive effort from his teammates should be applauded as a major contributing factor for the Canadiens’ success to this point.

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