by Blain Potvin, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

(Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

The final weeks before the playoffs begin is a magical time for hockey fans. The level of play picks up, making for a better on-ice product. The intensity on the ice is matched by the drama off the ice, as fans and pundits pour over various playoff permutations. Some look to predict matchups or express a preference of opponent for their favorite team.

For teams all but certain to play in the post-season, the weeks leading up to the playoffs are a time for fans to have a final look at their rosters. Is their team built to make a deep run, or was the regular season record a mirage?

Defensively after 75 games played (GP), the Canadiens are sixth in the NHL averaging 2.47 goals against (GA) per game, on pace for allowing 202. This is a significant drop from the 236 GA last season. This improvement is directly responsible for the Habs going from the bottom 10 in the NHL, to their current position of first in the Atlantic Division.

Yet, from New Year’s Day until Valentine’s Day, the Canadiens had serious troubles defensively. Carey Price had a save percentage below .900, and had allowed an average of 3.00 goals against average. These likely factored in heavily to Michel Therrien being dismissed.

With the arrival of Claude Julien, his aim has been to install his new defensive system of protecting the high percentage shooting area in front of Price, and to outnumber the puck carrier to regain possession, then transition out of the zone. Having a team that sits sixth in playoff seeded teams in blocked shots will only help Price when the playoffs begin.

The team has improved defensively to allow an average of only 2.13 goals per game. This is a decrease that is significant enough, that if extrapolated over a full season would place the Canadiens as the top defensive club in the NHL.

On the offensive side of the game after 75 games played, the Canadiens are sixteenth in the NHL averaging 2.68 goals for (GF) per game, on pace for 220. This is on pace with 221 goals scored last season. There have been long stretches where primary offense has struggled and secondary scoring has dried up, leaving everyone to wonder how can this be rectified.

Recently, however, secondary scoring has been more active. Paul Byron has achieved the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career, and in doing so, earned the nod as the team’s Masterton nominee. Artturi Lehkonen has had a solid rookie campaign with 13 goals thus far. Phillip Danault has begun to round into a solid top nine centerman at 35 points. Most of all, Byron, Lehkonen and Danault play responsible, defensive, hockey as dictated by Claude Julien’s system.

Despite the recent improvements offensively, there are still glaring questions prior to the start of the NHL Playoffs. While scoring overall has remained relatively unchanged over the last three seasons, it remains as the team’s Achilles heel.

If a playoff opponent were able to shutdown Max Pacioretty and Alex Radulov, they would eliminate one quarter of team scoring, leaving the team to rely heavily on secondary scoring. Without a player capable to be a true top six centerman, the Canadiens would be hard-pressed to advance deep enough to consider this season a success.

Alex Galchenyuk’s inability to cement himself as a bona fide top-six center leaves the Canadiens vulnerable up the middle. Danault has played well as the center for the team’s top line, but he has not produced consistent offence to be considered as anything more than a place-holder. Also, Tomas Plekanec has continued to play his usual shutdown role, yet his offence has dropped considerably from his 54 points last season to just 25 this year.

The Canadiens have always had a reputation as a small, but speedy team. Marc Bergevin went out at the trade deadline to address the issue by adding the Bell Center Bruisers. While there are still some questions to their overall effectiveness, the Canadiens are now a team who can play a physical style.

Montreal currently sits twelfth in the NHL in hits, and are fifth in playoff seeded teams. This provides Julien with a team capable of playing a balance between both a faster-paced game as well as a physical one.

The Habs have also clawed back to a respectable 50 percent in the faceoff circle, placing them fourteenth in the NHL. This has helped the Canadiens control the play by gaining possession more than at the beginning of the year.

The Canadiens have also displayed an elite-level in five-on-five (5v5) play. They are sitting  second overall in goals against (5v5), and thirteenth in goals for (5v5). Their goal differential (5v5) rivals the top teams in the East, such as Washington and Pittsburgh. This success makes disciplined play a key issue for the team moving into the playoffs

The Canadiens have fared well over the season with their special teams. The penalty-kill (PK) had major difficulties after the new year, but has improved since Julien’s arrival sitting now at 80.3 percent, for nineteenth place in the NHL.

The power-play (PP) had a hot start, then fell off a cliff in 2017. Since February 18th, it has shown signs of life, but has not been a consistent enough to be considered an effective threat. The power-play is currently 19.8 percent, good for twelfth in the NHL. In the playoffs, special teams can make a difference. The Canadiens will need to improve on both to offset deficiencies in their offensive game.

Knowing what the Canadiens have in hand this season allows us a clearer picture. As we enter the stretch run for the playoffs, key contributors such as Brendan Gallagher will be relied on to provide more scoring than they have thus far this season.

While the Canadiens have issues offensively at center, there is some hope that Galchenyuk could be able to step into the role effectively. Having said that, scoring by committee will still be required, but will that be enough in the playoffs? Without any significant improvement at center or on the power-play, it will have to be enough.

Montreal has a team that is able to play a physical brand of hockey without sacrificing speed. However, playing with that physical edge could lead them to taking more penalties.

Discipline will factor heavily into whether this style will bear fruit in the playoffs. The Habs will need to remain out of the box to be able to dictate the pace and style of the game.

Gaining an early lead will be another key for the Canadiens in the playoffs. Doing so will allow them to play to their greatest strength, a strong defensive system in place to compliment the world’s best goalie in Carey Price.

Despite any improvements to personnel, a factor in this season’s playoffs will be how Claude Julien can employ his systems. But let’s be clear. The key to any lasting success will rely solely on the health and performance of the team’s MVP, Carey Price.

Edited by Donna Sim