P.K. Subban (right) of the Montreal Canadiens and Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The way the Montreal Canadiens are playing these days, well, let’s just say it’s a good thing they clinched early or the title of this piece might have taken on a very different, overly optimistic meaning.
With the Habs secure in the knowledge their season will last an extra four games at least, here are the five top players who will be key to Montreal making it five or more instead of them just making the playoffs altogether:
Brendan Gallagher (right) of the Montreal Canadiens and Anton Volchenkov of the New Jersey Devils.
In the playoffs, where defense reigns supreme, garbage goals tend to come about more often than highlight-reel ones. That is where Brendan Gallagher comes in.
If Gallagher wins the Calder Trophy this year, it won’t be just because of his 25 points. It will also be because of his drive to go to the net and take the prerequisite physical punishment that has led to his 13 goals up to this point.
Montreal may have more dynamic offensive threats at its disposal, but Gallagher will no doubt get his fair share of points this postseason off rebounds, deflections and tip-ins.
To a certain degree, it remains to be seen if Gallagher can stand up to the rigors of the playoffs’ physical intensity, which should be amped up relative to that of the regular season, but he’s willing, resilient and most importantly, persistent.
Look for him to continue that trend in a few weeks’ time. He should be easy to find, at the center of just about every post-whistle scrum by the opposition’s net.
Tomas Plekanec (left) of the Montreal Canadiens and Tyler Bozak of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While Jeff Halpern has an impressive 56.1-percent success rate in the faceoff circle on about 350 attempts, Tomas Plekanec’s 50.1 percent on over 900 is more valuable, as he’s simply poised to take more draws during the playoffs.
It’s no mystery why that is: He’s just the better player, which is reflected in his ice time (nearly 20 minutes per game, almost double Halpern’s average).
While Halpern is no slouch in the defensive zone, Plekanec isn’t either, and his offensive game is obviously more refined. Additionally, opposing teams likely focusing more on Montreal’s unofficial first line of Gallagher, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty will open the door up for Plekanec in the playoffs, where depth means a great deal.
Montreal Canadien Brandon Prust checks Florida Panther Brian Campbell.
Analysts attributed a great deal of the New York Rangers’ struggles this season to their inability to retain the services of Brandon Prust.
While his current four-year, $10-million deal was initially considered at best an overpayment for a grinder with the ability to put up a just few points, he has turned into a key member of the team.
He even captured the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy as the team’s most valuable unsung hero. On a team largely devoid of superstar names, that’s quite an honor and a testament to the job he’s done on the ice, or more accurately, the dirty jobs he’s willing to do on the ice.
With Alexei Emelin out with a season-ending injury, Prust is now the team’s active hits leader. He also fights, generally much bigger opponents. And his 13 points in 35 games may seem like a modest total, but it works out to what would have potentially been a career-high 30 points over 82 games.
There’s a reason the New York Rangers made it all the way to the third round of the playoffs last season. While Prust wasn’t the main one, there’s similarly a good reason why the eighth-place Rangers this year are suddenly 6-2-1 since acquiring Ryane Clowe, a player with a comparable skill set.
New York Islander Kyle Okposo (from left) takes a shot in front of Montreal Canadiens Raphael Diaz and Carey Price.
Many might argue that Price would be the most important component of any hypothetically long playoff run…that these past few weeks during which the Habs have been routed time and again serve as proof that the Habs need Price. Not true. The Habs have needed Price to just be able to make a save.
Price has been incredibly inconsistent this year, starting off on fire, cooling off, getting hot again and then turning ice cold to the point of being pulled in two straight starts against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers.
He may have 20 wins this year, but that’s more an indication of the team playing in front of him, just as his being pulled recently has a lot to do with Montreal trying to figure out how to play defense again. Apparently, it’s not like riding a bike.
While the recent run of futility isn’t all on Price, when the Habs have needed him to step up and steal a game or two, he hasn’t, plain and simple.
If you truly believe him leading the league in victories at various points this season should figure into the discussion as to whether or not he has been an elite goalie, consider this: Ondrej Pavelec of the Winnipeg Jets has 21 wins, and no one’s rushing to give him Vezina consideration.
Know what else Price and Pavelec have in common? At least after Saturday night, a mediocre .905 save percentage that just barely places in the top 50 in the league, a league of just 30 starting goalies (give or take).
All that being said, there’s little denying that goaltending is key during the playoffs. Look to the Stanley Cup-favorite Pittsburgh Penguins last year as proof, when the black and white contrast between the puck and ice was just a tad too complicated of a concept for goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (4.63 goals-against average, .834 save percentage) to wrap his head around.
So, yes, to slightly contradict an earlier point, Montreal needs Price to a certain degree in the playoffs. However, while scoring wins games in the regular season and it’s goaltending that gets the best teams far in the playoffs, it’s not necessarily what wins championships.
Montreal Canadiens P.K. Subban (from left), Brendan Gallagher and Brandon Prust celebrate a goal.
It’s defense that wins championships, or at least that’s how the popular adage goes, and no player better epitomizes Montreal’s defense than P.K. Subban.
Like him or not, Subban is the league’s leading scorer among defensemen and will at the very least be a nominee for the Norris Memorial Trophy much like Washington Capital Mike Green was in 2009.
That everyone is lauding Green for rediscovering his game despite having a negative plus/minus rating this season points to defensive acumen not necessarily being a prerequisite to winning it.
As such, even if Subban does win it, he might only temporarily silence his critics (i.e. everybody at one point or another) that say he isn’t all that well-rounded of a defenseman.
His nickname of course may as well be P.P. for his prowess on the power play, were it not for the fact, of course, that it being uttered causes immature hockey fans everywhere to giggle uncontrollably.
Subban’s performance these playoffs won’t factor into the voting for the trophy, but if he wants to shut everyone up for good, he’ll play lights-out hockey this postseason. I mean, there’s no better way to prove people you’re more than a one-dimensional power-play quarterback than by playing well when power plays are few and far between.
Subban has, for all intents and purposes, been Montreal’s most valuable player this year. That may be open to debate, but what isn’t is that the play of he and defense partner Josh Gorges will be critical to Montreal’s success this postseason.
The loss of Andrei Markov’s partner, Alexei Emelin, has been thrown around in the media as the possible reason for Montreal’s recent downward spiral in quality of play. If that’s even a tad true and Emelin is indeed that valuable, just imagine how bad these past few weeks might have been had Subban been injured instead. Much worse.