If the Montreal Canadiens can manage to defeat the Vancouver Canucks to tie the NHL record for the best start to the season, they’ll likely do it by scoring early, relying on their goaltending and playing with the lead for most of the game.
That’s the way it has been through the first nine game of the streak, all of them regulation wins. But what is more remarkable about the Canadiens streak is how they’ve won those games. Of the 540 minutes the Canadiens have played so far this season, they’ve played from behind for just two minutes and 57 seconds. Think about that for a second. The Canadiens have played either tied or with the lead for 99.5 percent of the time this season. And they’ve held the lead for 350 minutes and nine seconds, meaning they’ve been ahead of their opponents for 64.8 percent of the time.
The only time the Canadiens have trailed this season was in Game 6 against the Detroit Red Wings when Dylan Larkin scored at 4:47 of the second period to put the Red Wings ahead 1-0. But Brendan Gallagher scored on the power play at 7:44 of that period and the Canadiens scored three goals in the third to cruise to a 4-1 win.
It’s not difficult to see where the Canadiens have made much of their gains. Yes, they have the best goaltender on the planet today in Carey Price, but their success goes much deeper than that. Last season, by almost any standard of measurement, the Canadiens were a terrible possession team. This season, they’re fifth in the league in puck possession when you adjust for the score. The Canadiens are still giving up a good number of shots – 31.7 per game – but what you have to remember is that teams that are leading are more inclined to give up shots than teams that are trailing in the game. So when you take into account that the Canadiens have been leading or tied virtually the entire season, you see why their shots against are still high.
The results this season are remarkable, really. The Canadiens are at a plus-7.4 shot differential per 60 minutes this season, as opposed to being minus-2.9 last season. That’s a swing of more than 10 shots per game. For each of the past two seasons, the Canadiens have blocked more than 1,400 shots, which is admirable, but also indicates a lack of puck possession. So far this season, they’ve blocked just 126, which would put them on pace to block about 300 fewer shots – or almost four per game – than they have the past two seasons.
And when it comes to scoring on their chances, the Canadiens have a shooting percentage of 11.9 percent this season, as opposed to 9.5 percent last season. Their goaltending, if you can believe it, is even better this season than it was last year when Carey Price won every award imaginable. Habs goalies have a save percentage of .964 this season, compared to .936 in 2014-15.
Will this trend continue all season? Probably not, but with those kinds of numbers combined with their puck possession, the Canadiens have been unbeatable. And with 18 points already in the bank and the team basically needing to only play .500 the rest of the way to clinch a playoff spot, their numbers don’t have to remain this high.
So why the change? Well, for one, the Canadiens hired Matt Pfeffer as an analytics consultant over the summer and it appears the coaches and management are listening to what he has to say. Word is that Pfeffer has convinced the Canadiens that chip and chase and praying for your goaltender to be superhuman is not the ideal recipe for sustained success, particularly when you don’t have a team that’s built to play that kind of game.
The Canadiens, you’ll probably notice, are entering the zone a little differently this season, that is with the puck on their sticks. That is obviously leading to more offensive opportunities and when they do give up an opportunity, their goaltending is there to bail them out.
And it’s a much healthier way to play the game. The biggest difference between the badly flawed Canadiens from last season and the undefeated juggernaut this season is not in their goaltending, because that has remained constant. It has been in their approach to the game. It’s why they’re going for an NHL record tonight and why they’ve actually become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender instead of one that’s doing it with smoke and mirrors and goaltending.