Last week, the Puck Prospectus staff was asked to consider which currently 5th-8th seeded team had the best chance of winning the Stanley Cup. The consensus choice was Detroit – finally healthy and rounding into shape as the team that raised the trophy in 2007-08 and came within one game of repeating as champions in 2008-09 (And now, they’ve got a legit goaltender in Jimmy Howard, to boot). But how much of a “dark horse” can Detroit really be, especially if they sneak all the way up to a 5th or 6th seed by season’s end?
On the other hand, it’s hard to favor anyone in the wild, wild Western Conference, isn’t it? Various forecasts out there are giving the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks an aggregate 45-50% chance of advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals. They’re great teams, mind you, but I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to pick the field over those two teams. Think about it: Phoenix, Vancouver and Detroit are dangerous without a doubt, the underrated Predators have been very hot of recent, and even Los Angeles and Colorado are dangerous foes (Worried about the Avs making the playoffs? No more. And don’t underestimate Colorado against San Jose, folks). Sure, you favor the Sharks and Blackhawks, but anyone can knock out anyone in the West. Who knows who will be left standing by the time the Conference Finals roll around. Bottom line: if you can doubt San Jose’s and Chicago’s chances of making the Stanley Cup Finals, you shouldn’t overstate Detroit’s chances either.
That’s what led me to look at the “bubble teams” of the Eastern Conference. A few weeks ago, you may have noticed that both Philadelphia and Montreal were among the hottest teams in the East, having posted well above .600 records for thirty-plus games. That’s changed in a hurry, as the Flyers are struggling mightily now, hamstrung by below average goaltending as well as an offense that has disappeared. Leaving Montreal as a potential dark horse: yes, to win it all. And the more you look, the more you like.
But maybe I’m the only one who sees it, because lately, you could find plenty of folks in the blogosphere bemoaning Montreal’s lack of scoring––and especially their lack of even strength scoring––as their critical weakness. In fact, these Montreal “supporters” weren’t even pegging the Canadiens as a playoff team a few short days ago. Even now, I’m sure that the past two wins could be written off as Halak shutouts whitewashing a lousy offense.
Admittedly, over the last 8 games, Montreal has scored only 15 goals, but over the 8 games prior to that––since coming back from the Olympic break on March 2nd––they had scored 30 goals. That equates to a league average scoring rate of 2.8 GF per game since the Olympics, not exactly something to push the panic button over. And check out the context: this stretch of games has included more elite goaltenders––Ryan Miller (twice), Henrik Lundqvist, Martin Brodeur, Tomas Vokoun, Tuukka Rask (twice), Evgeni Nabokov, Jonas Hiller––and hot goaltenders––Brian Elliott, Cam Ward––than relative pushovers––like Brian Boucher (Sorry to keep beating that horse), Antero Niittymaki, Jonas Gustavsson, Devan Dubnyk and Jonathan Quick.
What about the concerns over even strength scoring, as Montreal’s fine power play rate of 21.8% (2nd in NHL) will likely see opportunities limited with the more laissez-faire refereeing of the postseason? It’s true that the Habs’ even strength scoring has remained a mediocre 1.70-1.75 throughout the ups and downs of the season. But the difference is the even strength defense, which has improved from a poor 2.1 ESGA per game during Markov’s absence to an above average 1.6 ESGA since his return, to an elite 1.3 ESGA since the Olympic break. So you can stop being concerned over Montreal’s 5 on 5 scoring ratio of 0.91, because like their ESGA per game, it’s improved from 0.76 during Markov’s absence to 1.04 since his return, to 1.43 since the Olympic break (2nd to Washington’s rate over the course of the season). Yes, we can expect Halak’s play to come back to earth a bit, but you’re talking about a strong even strength team here, not a weak one, with all of the horses the Habs’ will have going for them in the playoffs.
What’s made the difference? For some insight, let’s break down the level of individual GVT lost over the course of the season for Les Habitants. Though injuries are part of the game, we’d like to know how Montreal would have fared under a near-best case scenario. With the Canadiens healthy now, this should give us an idea of how good a squad they will be in the playoffs. To keep it simple, we will look only at the effect of a) the time lost by Montreal’s most important players––Andrei Markov, Benoit Pouliot, Brian Gionta, Michael Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn––b) having Benoit Pouliot on the Habs for the entire season and c) greater use of the outstanding Jaroslav Halak (.927 save percentage) instead of the solid Carey Price (.912 save percentage) in goal:
GP: Games Played
Actual: Goal Versus Threshold for 2009-10
Projected: GVT projection, if no games missed
GVT Lost: GVT lost due to injuries and goaltender usage
Montreal Canadiens by GVT - The team that could have been, and could be
Name Pos GP Actual Projected GVT Lost
Andrei Markov D 39.0 8.7 17.0 8.3
Benoit Pouliot LW 33.0 5.7 13.1 7.4
Jaroslav Halak* G 38.7 17.4 22.5 5.1
Brian Gionta RW 55.0 8.9 12.3 3.4
Michael Cammalleri C 59.0 9.3 12.0 2.7
Andrei Kostitsyn LW 53.0 6.1 8.7 2.6
Marc-Andre Bergeron D 54.0 5.8 8.2 2.4
Carey Price* G 38.3 5.2 3.5 -1.7
Total GVT lost (key players only) 30.2
-Stats through 4/3/2010
*Assumes 50 GP for Halak and 26 GP for Price
Not surprisingly, the loss of last season’s points leader Andrei Markov for roughly half the season had the largest effect on the Habs; you’d expect their total team GVT (which is equivalent to Goal Difference) to have increased by 8.3 goals had he been able to play the entire season. The addition of Benoit Pouliot through the trade of Guillame Latendresse to Minnesota improved the play of both forwards at their new destinations; assuming Pouliot’s level of play in Montreal could have been sustained for an entire season, having the winger in the lineup would have improved the Canadiens by 7.4 goals. Having Brian Gionta, Michael Cammaleri, Andrei Kostitsyn and Marc-Andre Bergeron injury-free for the full season would have improved the Canadiens by a further 11.1 GVT. Lastly, swapping a dozen starts from Price to Halak would have been worth 3.4 GVT.
The total difference over the course of the season––without trying to squeeze every last GVT out of roster––would have been on the order of 30 Goals Versus Threshold, or 30 Goal Difference, enough to take Montreal from a below average 18th in the NHL in GVT to an impressive 5th, behind only Washington, Chicago, Vancouver and San Jose. That’s right: with this lineup, Montreal would have been marginally better than top four seeds Buffalo, New Jersey, Phoenix and Pittsburgh, who most pundits consider legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup. Change your view on the Habs?
Because this isn’t really about what might have been, it’s about what could be. With all of their stars healthy and with Jaroslav Halak in goal throughout the postseason, there’s a strong case to be made for Montreal being the fifth best team in the playoffs and the second best team in the Eastern Conference. Translation? The second through fourth seeds––Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Buffalo––should be wishing for anyone but Montreal in the first round, because those are upsets in the making. And, believe it or not, the Habs might just be making the Capitals sweat out a long series in round number two. And from there on…You never know.
Montreal? Nous croyons.
Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics. Follow Timo on Twitter at @timoseppa.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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