The first season of BEARD Hockey has been a successful one for the Montreal Canadiens and GM Lennart Westman, at least so far.
With 13 games left of the regular season the playoff spot may not formally be clinched yet, but there´s no doubt the Habs will be going into the post season. If the team doesn’t fall apart completely they could possibly do so as the division winner in the Atlantic Division and a possible first or second spot in the Eastern Conference.
So lets be a little bold and already try to sum up the regular season, expectations for the post season and take a guess on possible opponents in the playoffs.
One of the interesting facts from the regular season is that even when the Canadiens lose they win. So far the team have lost only 17 games in regulation. Eight games were lost in overtime, or actually mainly in shoot outs, still bringing eight valuable points to the standings. Out of the 15 games that were decided in regular overtime the team only lost two, which of course is a valuable strength going into the playoffs, where there are no shoot outs.
While the scoring numbers are not too impressive with 3.18 goals for per game the defensive stats better explain the Montreal success up to date. Allowing only 2.65 goals per game the Canadiens have proven to be the toughest team to score on in BEARD Hockey.
The explanation behind that is not only the expected elite performance of Andrei Vasilevskiy, but just as much so the great performance by back up Anders Nilsson. In fact, Nilsson has actually put up better numbers than Vasilevskiy in the 16 games he has started so far, so the Canadiens are without a doubt going into the playoffs with two great goalies.
As the management decided to trade Nick Holden right before the deadline the team lack depth on the blueline, which of course could turn out to be troublesome. Depending on who would need to be replaced bringing up Xavier Ouellet or Carl Dahlstrom could be a huge difference, possibly causing elimination. Especially since the team so far is not getting better scoring performance from the forwards.
Late acquisitions Dustin Brown (9p in 12 games) and Derick Brassard (4p in 8 games) have not gotten the start the management hoped for. While their physical game has been valuable the expectation for sure was to boost the second line scoring as well. Expect some more experimenting with line combinations as Brassard comes back from a minor injury any day now.
Out of the forwards only Jack Eichel and Gabriel Landeskog, maybe Alex Galchenyuk too, have lived up to the expectations so far. If the Canadiens should have any chances survivng the first round of the playoffs players like Brassard, Brown and maybe even more so Mikko Rantanen need to step up to a higher level than today. Rantanen is 0.77 points per game so far, so there’s no doubt there’s room for improvement.
So let’s assume the collapse doesn’t occur and that the Canadiens end up in any of the two top spots in the division; who will they face in the first round of the playoffs?
Based on trends, team schedules and roster status our prediction is that Tampa will make it, while Philadelphia with an injury and a tougher schedule will be left on the outside looking in. The fight for the last spot could be between the Hurricanes and the Islanders, so let’s have a quick look at Montreal’s chance against those three teams.
Tampa – Out of six games this season Montreal has won five, two in OT. Even though all games have been close we still think that the higher level of experience and leadership will give Montreal an edge, but as already stated, expect it to be tight games.
Carolina – The teams only played each other twice this season, both encounters giving Montreal the W. Both games were still close, as Montreal won 5-3 and 5-4, and this is also a team going into the playoffs with even greater experience and leadership qualities than the Canadiens. The deciding factor will be the netminders, so even though Vasilevskiy has won the battle over Price twice during regular season Price’s experience from playoffs could give Caroline the edge. Expect tight games here too.
New York Islanders – The teams have actually only met once yet, this season. Early in the season the Islanders beat the Canadiens 2-1 in OT. The teams will face each other again for the second and last time in two weeks from now. While the Canadiens have improved scoring from 2.77 to 3.18 GF/G and are the toughest team to score on (2.65 GA/G) with a difference of +36 over the season the Islanders are struggling with 3.03 GF/G, 3.10 GA/G and -5 difference.
The better goaltending gives Montreal an edge, but we still cannot neglect the fact that the islanders did win the only time the two teams played each other and that playoff hockey is something completely different than regular season hockey.
So, to sum it up: We predict the Canadiens will win the Atlantic Division, end up in a top three position in the conference and still have to improve their play in order to survive the first round. Players like Rantanen, Brassard and Brown need to start producing, the defenders need to stay healthy and the goaltenders need to stay on the same level of play as now.
But if all of that happens and it lasts, Montreal has the potential to take us on a long post season journey.