Who knew that having solid centres would help stabilize a team offensively?
Before the season started, it looked like it was going to be another wasted season for the Montreal Canadiens. Their centre depth was still in question, their defense was plagued by injuries and underperforming players, and the goaltending situation was once again “Hope Carey Price stops everything that moves to mask our shoddy defensive play”. With all of this piling up, the Habs were ranked 28th in ESPN’s preseason power rankings, ahead of only Vancouver, Detroit and Ottawa.
Flash forward to today, coming off of a 5-1 win over the Florida Panthers, and the Canadiens are in a prime position to make the postseason for the 11th time in 15 seasons. The Habs are 26-17-5, putting them in a tie with the Boston Bruins for third in the Atlantic Division and just one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for second place. Hockey-Reference.com gives them a 71.4% to make the playoffs, with a 36.5% chance to win a wildcard spot.
How’d The Habs Get To This Point?
But what spurred this? A team that traded their captain in the summer and wouldn’t see their replacement captain (Shea Weber) until December is looking like a dark horse candidate for a lengthy playoff run.
One area that has been of great help has been at centre. Max Domi, acquired in a trade with Arizona for Alex Galchenyuk in June, has been a revelation as a second-line centre. He leads the Habs in goal scoring (15) and points (41), only three off of his career high in goals and 11 from his career high in points. He has provided the depth the Habs were desperately needing at centre and has taken the pressure off of first-line centre Phillip Danault, whose 32 points has him fifth on the team in scoring.
Elsewhere in the lineup, Tomas Tatar, acquired in the Max Pacioretty trade with Vegas, is third on the team in scoring with 35 points and leads the team with a 10.0% relative Corsi. Rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi has 23 points in his role as third-line centre, and Jonathan Drouin is finally finding his footing in the Habs lineup with 35 points so far, on pace to smash his point total (46 points in 77 games) from last season.
Jeff Petry & Carey Price
More solid play has come from the defensive front. Jeff Petry, who already has 33 points this season, is on pace to set a career high in scoring and is a solid presence on the ice possession wise, with a 1.1% relative Corsi and brings a physical nature (133 hits so far) to his game.
Another player to highlight is the captain Shea Weber. Since returning to the team on November 27th, the Habs are 15-9-0 and Weber has 14 points in 24 games. He’s looked great and has been a leader that the younger players can rally behind.
With the positive growth on offense and defense, the goaltending hasn’t need to be otherworldly to keep the Habs in the playoff hunt. Carey Price has been good, not amazing, but still solid. His numbers this year (18-13-4, .912 SV%, 2.65 GAA, 4.22 GSAA) are far better than they were last year (16-26-7, .900 SV%, 3.11 GAA, -17.49 GSAA) and it has helped propel the team to a far better record than they had at this point last season (20-22-6). Does Price look like a $10.5 million goalie? Not quite, but he has done more than enough to help his team contend for a playoff spot.
Room To Grow
Are the Habs perfect? No. Their offense still has room to grow and won’t be able to keep up with the juggernauts in their division, and the defense is still a little flimsy. But this team has defied all expectations that were placed upon them in the pre-season. Claude Julien and Shea Weber have helped mold this team into a feisty and frustrating team to play against, and if they can keep it up, they may have a chance to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup once again.
stats from NHL.com, hockey-reference.com, naturalstattrick.com
featured image photo credit – Nikos Michals