After the Boston Bruins had won 12 of their last 13 games and pretty much sealed up the Atlantic division, it’s hard not to look forward to the playoffs. The Bruins are the reigning Eastern Conference champs, and they’ll be defending that title come April. When I look out across the landscape of Boston’s potential challengers, it isn’t Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins that pose the biggest threat. It’s the Montreal Canadiens.
On paper, it sounds ridiculous. Montreal is just not on Boston’s level. The Canadiens have trouble scoring goals (21st in goals scored), while the Bruins boast the league’s third best offense. Defensively, the Habs certainly can keep the puck out of the net (7th in the league), but Zdeno Chara and Vezina favorite Tuukka Rask have led Boston to the best goals against average in the NHL. In the special teams battle, things are a lot more even. Boston has the better power play, but Montreal has the better penalty-killing unit, even though the difference in both cases is slight (less than 2% efficiency either way). Skating five-on-five, the scale tips back even farther to Boston: the Bruins are the best five-on-five team in the league whereas Montreal ranks toward the bottom, along with basement dwellers like the Florida Panthers and the Carolina Hurricanes.
And yet, despite all of these statistical advantages, Montreal has won three out of its four games against Boston. That wouldn’t be as concerning if the Bruins hadn’t thoroughly dominated the rest of the conference. If the playoffs were to end today, Boston would be 1-2-1 against the Habs and an astounding 13-3 against every other playoff team (if Toronto beats out Detroit, the number rises to 14-2). In fact, the Bruins will have lost more games to Montreal in Boston than to the Penguins, Rangers, Flyers, Blue Jackets, and Lightning, home or away, combined.
So what gives? Why has this match up been so problematic for the Black and Gold? The answer is, among other things, special teams. Even though statistically the teams are pretty neck and neck overall, the Canadiens have had the edge in their series. Neither team’s power play has been particularly lethal head-to-head (which makes sense considering Boston and Montreal both excel on the kill), but while the Bruins score on 21% of their power play opportunities against all other opponents, they score on only 7% of their opportunities against the Habs. The goal Boston scored on Monday was their first power play goal against Montreal all year.
But that’s not all. If Boston isn’t scoring on the man advantage, every whistle benefits Montreal. Even if the Habs don’t score on their power plays, every minute they play on special teams is one less minute they play five-on-five, which is where Boston holds their biggest advantage. And, when these two teams play, the penalties have been coming in bunches. The average Bruins game sees Boston shorthanded a little more than two times, with a total of just over five power plays combined per game. Against Montreal, Boston (on average) is shorthanded almost four and a half times, with almost eight power plays between the two teams. It’s not surprising that the Bruins lone win against the Habs featured a season-series low five combined power play opportunities.
Don’t get me wrong, the Bruins are still the favorite to come out of the East, and they should be. While the season series with Montreal has been concerning, all is not lost. First off, there’s no guarantee that Montreal meets the Bruins in the playoffs (though the new format makes it more likely). As it stands currently, Montreal has a tough first round match up against the Lightning (who have beaten the Habs two out of three times, though all three games went to overtime, and two ended in a shootout). Monday’s game also serves as a reminder that the smaller Canadiens might have a problem physically matching up against a hard-hitting Bruins lineup, and up to seven games, every other night, could prove too much for Montreal. The Habs lost two forwards last night, and it’s easy to picture the Bruins grinding them down over time.
If Boston draws Montreal in the first or second round then Boston will have their hands full. And, using the season series as an indicator, Bruins fans have good reason to be a little nervous. The silver lining? Whenever these two teams meet in the playoffs, it showcases the best hockey has to offer.