Friday, October 23, 2009

An identity in the making

The Canadiens showed last night in their 5-1 win over the Islanders the true potential of a puck possession game.

In fact, the Habs have been showing it for the past five games, as some of you have been astutely pointing out, but last night was the first time it gave the desired result. True dominance of a team that was ripe for domination, a team that won its first game of the season a night earlier, a team that had little talent and even less in the tank.

But that shouldn't take away from the Canadiens effort, because they did exactly what needed to be done against a team in that situation. They pressured them all night, forced them to play without the puck, forced them into penalties and, for once, actually converted on the power play.

Last night's 2-for-6 conversion rate snapped a 2-for-27 streak since Game 1 of the season, and even Bob Gainey must have smiled just a little when he saw Marc-Andre Bergeron hammer home that slap shot in the first period. And the mere threat of Bergeron unleashing that shot led to the second power play goal as well, with the Islanders pressuring him at the point and opening up room for Tomas Plekanec to find Mike Cammalleri for a one-timer.

I don't want to make too much of last night's result, however, simply because the Islanders were so beatable. But looking at the past five games, some definite trends are starting to develop. In other words, the Habs are starting to find their identity.

The penalty killing was a perfect 3-for-3 and has now killed off 18 of the last 19, with the only goal coming on a 5-on-3 against the Senators. Furthermore, teams are no longer having target practice on the Canadiens net, with only 22 shots allowed last night. That was the fifth straight game the Habs have allowed 23 or fewer shots. The Canadiens only managed that defensive feat seven times all last season.

The arrival of Jacques Martin was supposed to add a measure of defensive responsibility, but while most assumed (myself included) that it would come from a stifling, trapping style, it has rather been the result of his puck possession philosophy. It's pretty simple, really, that the other team can't shoot on your net if it doesn't have the puck.

A great way to judge puck possession by using stats is attempted shots, which is shots on goal, shots blocked and shots missed combined. Essentially, you won't be trying to shoot on net unless you have the puck in the offensive zone, so it's a pretty good indicator of dangerous puck possession.

Here's how the last five games break down in terms of shots attempted:

v. NYI - Mtl had 83 shot attempts and gave up 44
v. Atl - Mtl had 74, gave up 61
v. Ott - Mtl had 76, gave up 44
v. Col - Mtl had 65, gave up 42
v. Edm - Mtl had 71, gave up 48

On average, that's 73.8 shot attempts per game for the Habs and 47.8 per game against the Habs, a wide margin of 26 per contest. Last season, and even the past two or three seasons, the opposite was often the case as teams routinely outshot the Canadiens even though Mike Komisarek and Roman Hamrlik blocked about 10 or 12 shots per game between them.

So, now that the team is starting to figure out Martin's system, what is going to happen in goal? A lot of people insisted there was no controversy resulting from Jaroslav Halak getting a second straight start last night, and that's fine. But what happens if Martin, after a good night's sleep tonight, announces tomorrow morning that he's going back with Carey Price against the Rangers? Won't that be controversial, considering Halak has won two straight and allowed only two goals in the process?

To me, the choice is clear - now that Halak was given a second straight start, he should play until he has a bad game. Not necessarily a loss, but a bad game, even if it results in a win. The way Halak is playing, it could be weeks before that happens. Then would it be a controversy?


MathMan said...

This kind of puck possession is the stuff from which consistent winners are made, and I'm really glad to see such results so early. That's why I was so optimistic about that team after five straight losses, more than I have for most Habs teams of the past.

They were bound to convert first-period dominance into a proper two-goal lead at some point. And weak-and-tired-Islanders or not, their five goals were built over a constant game of nonstop pressure -- this was not the case of a game that was over with early, even if the Isles were pretty much on life support after MaxPac's goal. This was relentless, wire-to-wire pressure, and their goals were the result of constant attack, not a weak opposing goaltender.

The low number of shots against (23 or less for what, five, six games in a row now?) may be more telling than the shots for. The Martin defensive/puck possession system is taking hold... and it hasn't resulted in a dearth of chances at the other hand.

The personnel is also well-suited to it. The difference in attempted shots -- aka Corsi number -- is a good measure of puck possession, and I couldn't help but notice back when they joined the Habs it was a strong suit of Gomez and Spacek (and, oddly, Bergeron). Guess we're seeing first-hand what the numbers mean, particularly in the case of Gomez who is a puck-possession ace. This team has not been the 5-on-5 minnow that it has been in the past.

As for the "goalie controversy", I think this is more a case of not having a "wrong" option, rather than not having a "right" one. The reality is that if the team allows so few chances, goaltending is much less of an issue -- see the Detroit Red Wings for illustration. Montreal is slowly turning into a team that can win with "good enough" goaltending -- quite a departure from their past incarnations really.

T man said...

Hey Arpon,

Where do you get the stats for total chances (blocked shots + missed shots)??

I was looking for that kind of data at but didn't find it.

Arpon Basu said...

T man: You can find it on the event report of each individual game. If you go to the scoreboard at, click on boxscore, then click on game reports. Then choose event report, and you'll see the shots blocked and missed for each team, along with hits and other stats

Anonymous said...

So Halak played the easy game agains the Islanders, I really wonder who is in net tonight to meet the Rangers...

Pretty easy to destroy Carey's confidence(or what is left of it) by putting him into the net tonight, I would start Halak tonight...

Simply because i cant see Habs beating the Rangers, i predict a 5-1 loss.