State of the Habs, Part 8 – Game 29-33: Regression to a Mean

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Gallagher - one of Montreal's brightest spots - with his "billet" Gorges, one of the team's disappointments (PHOTO: MICHAEL DWYER, AP)

State of the Habs is an 11-part feature series where I’ll break down the Habs’ season into 4- to 5-game chunks and look at players who are under- or over-performing during that time, while commenting on issues surrounding the team.

See Previous Segments:
Part 1 (Games 1-4: 3-1-0, “The Boys are Back in Town”)
Part 2 (Games 5-8: 3-1-0, “Rinse and Repeat”)
Part 3 (Games 9-12: 1-2-1, “The Plot Thickens”)
Part 4 (Games 13-16: 4-0-0, “Perfection”)
Part 5 (Games 17-20: 2-0-2, “And the Streak Goes On”)
Part 6 (Games 21-24: 2-1-1, “No Defense, No Problem”)
Part 7 (Games 25-28: 4-0-0, “The Kids are Alright”)

Overview – Game Segment 8/11 (Games 29-33)

Season Last Five Games
Record 21-7-5 2-2-1
Goal Differential +21 +1
Leading Scorer Ryder (10-15-25) Plekanec (0-5-5)
Hot (L5 GP) Ryder (4-0-4)
Cold (L5 GP) Galchenyuk (0-2-2)

 

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

TORONTO, ON – They were never supposed to be one of the teams fighting for the Eastern Conference crown in this shortened 2013 National Hockey League season.

Thus, when the Montreal Canadiens started winning game after game, many assumed it to be luck, concluding that it wouldn’t last. But it did. Far longer than anyone foresaw. What was even more surprising, was that by most advanced stat metrics, the team wasn’t even picking points they didn’t deserve; they were truly playing well enough to earn the wins.

Gallagher - one of Montreal's brightest spots - with his "billet" Gorges, one of the team's disappointments (PHOTO: MICHAEL DWYER, AP)
Gallagher – one of Montreal’s brightest spots – with his “billet” Gorges, one of the team’s disappointments (PHOTO: MICHAEL DWYER, AP)

Of course, those advanced numbers don’t support any team winning forever, so there was an expectation that the Habs would fall back down to earth a little bit at some point, but it didn’t take much. A 1-2-1 start to this past segment had the club nearly regressed to the mean while staying right in the battle for first in the Eastern Conference or at least first in the Northeast Division.

That “slump” was almost a case study in how a given team’s luck evens out over the course of a season. Montreal has benefited from a number of factors up until now including health of the majority of the core players and some opportunistic scoring, yet over that brief stretch, the Canadiens out shot opposition 139-91 while only earning three of a possible eight points.

Wednesday night, it seemed that this very normal statistical normalization might extend into a true cold spell, but the Habs showed the kind of resiliency that has typified much of their season, coming back from 4-2 and 5-3 third period deficits to ultimately beat the Boston Bruins in a shootout.

The big news is just what this regression means by the Montreal Canadiens. It isn’t that of an average club; certainly not that of last year’s Habs. If you take the Corsi – a popular advanced stat metric – of the last four Stanley Cup winning squads and average it out, you’d get a score of 54.2 percent. Prior to Wednesday night’s action, only four teams had scores above that mark – the Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks, and yes… your Montreal Canadiens. The win that night put the team back ahead of Boston for first in the Northeast, and even though first in the conference seems out of reach with Pittsburgh’s win streak combined with their new additions, there are valid reasons to believe a long, deep playoff drive possible for le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge.

A picture of the standings as of Friday, March 29th (via NHL.com):

StandingsEndMar

 

Surpassing Expectations

One key contributor leading the charge over the past stretch was again the surprising Brendan Gallagher. Gallagher is proving to be a real coach’s dream; the kind of player who never takes a night off and will do anything required to help his team. In a stretch where at times the Montreal offense was sluggish to get going, Gallagher was able to provide a spark regularly, and scored a big insurance marker against the New York Islanders before leading the comeback charge against the Bruins. His recent play has him right back in there for consideration for the Calder Trophy at season’s end.

Other than Gallagher, the most consistent offensive pressure over the last five games came from the trio of Michael Ryder, Tomas Plekanec, and Brian Gionta. Ryder’s four goals and Plekanec’s five points paced the club offensively during this fragment of the season, and no doubt that half of the Newfoundland native’s production came against his former club in Boston made it all the sweeter. A big part of Montreal’s success has been balanced contributions from all three scoring lines, so with the likes of David Desharnais, Alex Galchenyuk, and even Lars Eller a little quieter offensively of late, it is the Plekanec line that has stepped up to carry the load.

Among blueliners, there is no question as to the identity of the team’s real leader. At this point, it’s safe to say it’d be a bigger shock if P.K. Subban wasn’t nominated for the Norris Trophy than if he was. Playing the minutes he deserve, Subban is consistently flashing his dynamic offensive and puck-rushing abilities and has become the clear quarterback of the top powerplay unit. In fact, since Raphael Diaz‘s injury, the powerplay’s success depends almost exclusively on Subban’s booming pointshot. Meanwhile, he has also been effective in his own end, and this despite the struggles of his partner Josh Gorges.

There have been fewer exuberant celebrations for Subban this year, but more reasons to celebrate
There have been fewer exuberant celebrations for Subban this year, but more reasons to celebrate

 

The Letdowns

In the last segment, I mentioned no player was a real letdown, and chose to focus on David Desharnais‘s contract instead. Since signing that deal, contract aside, Desharnais has been a disappointment. Three assists over five games is pretty fair production (projecting to almost 50 points in an 82-game season), but the flaws in the rest of his game have been well on display. Desharnais has looked weak on the puck, poor in defensive zone coverage, and is far more a complimentary opportunistic depth offensive contributor (not that there is anything wrong with such players) than a guy who should be identified as part of a core critical to the team’s success.

On the blueline, the pair of Alexei Emelin and Andrei Markov continues to have their share of struggles after such a strong start to the season. Markov’s point production has picked back up (while the previously hot Emelin has slowed back down) with a goal and three helpers in this stretch, but it is defensively where the pair has been caught running around, late coming back, or missing coverage in their own end. This is not a pair that can reliably be counted on to go head-to-head with opposing top units on a nightly basis, and as such, that responsibility is shifting over to P.K. Subban and Josh Gorges.

However, unfortunately Josh Gorges hasn’t been typical Josh Gorges this season. Though he hasn’t been playing noticeably poor hockey every night, his role (and salary) necessitate his being the team’s No. 1 reliable, stay-at-home shutdown defenseman, and his play in the defensive zone has been worrisome at times. Perhaps it is a case of Gorges trying to do too much to live up to his long-term $3.9M contract, but he would do himself and his team a favour by simplifying his game back to the style he previously played on a pairing with Hal Gill.

 

The Road Ahead

The next segment of five games all takes place between two Saturdays, which means a busy week of lots of hockey for the Canadiens. And while there is plenty of excitement in a build-up that culminates in a Saturday night rematch against the Bruins – this time at the Bell Centre – the biggest intrigue comes smack dab in the middle of next week with the NHL’s trade deadline.

Will Marc Bergevin be active to try to keep pace with the Penguins and moves the Bruins are share to still make? Time will tell, but given the lack of true progress in the conditions of Rene Bourque or Raphael Diaz, replacements may be sought out. This would mean looking for a scoring forward with some size and bite, in addition to ideally a big and tough defender who wouldn’t look entirely out of place on a second powerplay unit.

With all the games, Peter Budaj is certain to get at least one start, and he has most definitely earned with his stellar play throughout the season but most recently coming in for Carey Price to help earn the win in Boston.

Once this next set of five games is complete, we will be hitting the true final stretch, with just 10 games remaining to determine pre-playoffs positioning.

 

Three Stars – Segment Eight

1. Brendan Gallagher

2. Michael Ryder

3. P.K. Subban

 

Three Stars – Standings through 8/11 segments
(three points for being named first star, two for second, one for third)

1. P.K. Subban – 9
2. Tomas Plekanec – 8

3. Alex Galchenyuk – 4
3. Max Pacioretty – 4
3. Lars Eller – 4
6. Andrei Markov – 3

6. Brendan Gallagher – 3
6. Michael Ryder – 3
9. Carey Price – 2
9. Peter Budaj – 2
9. Brian Gionta – 2
9. Rene Bourque – 2
9. David Desharnais – 2
14. Raphael Diaz – 1
14. Brandon Prust – 1