In sharp contrast to where they were in the first round of these Stanley Cup playoffs after four games, the Montreal Canadiens now find themselves tied with the Boston Bruins entering Game 5 of Round 2, having just given back home-ice advantage in heartbreaking fashion. All is not lost, however.
They of course now have the unenviable task of winning at least one more time in Boston. The good news is they have already won there once, in Game 1 to open the series. They would have won there twice, were it not for the Bruins’ impressive comeback victory in Game 2.
In fact, hypothetically speaking, if you choose to look at your glass as half-full, in many ways, Montreal should have been up 3-0 entering Game 4. And because Game 4 could have gone either way, in at least one parallel universe out there, the Habs are right now waiting to play either the New York Rangers or Pittsburgh Penguins (or quite possibly some team made up solely of robots or cyborgs) in the Eastern Conference Final.
Of course, seeing as the Habs were dominated in Game 1 (and probably deserved to lose that game along with the second one after giving up a two-goal third-period lead), in another way, Montreal should be down 3-1. So, however you choose to look at it, the Habs are in a good position against their longtime rivals.
While the Habs lost Game 4, it was arguably the team’s best of their second-round series. As a result, the Habs have to feel at least encouraged by the fact they have been able to stick around with, essentially, the best team in the league.
Nevertheless, if the Habs have any hope of advancing, they’re going to need to stop getting outshot game after game. Montreal was, admittedly, much better in that regard in Game 4 relative to the past three in the series. The Canadiens were only outshot by two, 35-33. And it’s slightly ironic that the game-winning goal by Matt Fraser was scored on one of the most innocuous-looking plays in the game.
However, that’s what happens when you put pucks on the net. Sometimes you get lucky and one that has no business going in does. Put simply, in order to win, Montreal can stand to direct a lot more rubber Boston goalie Tuukka Rask’s way (relative to the shots Carey Price is facing).
For example, in Game 1, when they were outshot 51-33, the Bruins actually had 98 total shot attempts to Montreal’s 58. In fact, in each game, the Habs have given up more shot attempts than they’ve had themselves. It’s a far cry from their series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, where, with exception to just one game, the opposite was true.
Part of that stems from the fact that Boston had the league’s best record in the regular season, sure.
However, another controllable part stems from curious roster decisions, like dressing Douglas Murray for the past two games, when, yeah, he may hit opponents like an 18-wheel Mack truck, but he’s got about the same acceleration. And that’s reflected in his possession stats. In all situations, he’s got a 24.1 Corsi rating, meaning whenever he’s on the ice, the Habs take just 24.1 percent of all shot attempts.
Needless to say, that’s the worst mark on the Habs. That would be the worst mark on the Bruins, too. Only Detroit Red Wing Joakim Andersson (22.2 percent) and Dallas Star Aaron Rome (14.2 percent) have worse marks these playoffs. And both of their teams didn’t make it out of the first round. A bad omen, perhaps? For the record, Murray was on the ice for Fraser's Game 4 overtime goal.
Of course, a big part of Murray’s game involves standing in front of opponents in the hopes of getting his 6’3" frame in front of their shots...or “blocking shots” if you want to get technical. If you take all those blocked shots away, you’re now measuring Fenwick, and his rating goes up (25.0 percent in all situations), indicating as much. His rating increases because, without all those blocked shots, he’s now on the ice for fewer shot attempts by the opposition.
As a team, looking at Fenwick, the Habs’ rating go up as well, to the point that they’ve essentially improved each and every game against the Bruins from 39.3 in Game 1 to 46.7 in Game 4 (in Games 2 and 3, Montreal had ratings of 46.5).
Ideally, they wouldn’t have to block as many shots as they have been. They have 165, which is behind only the Chicago Blackhawks (186), who have played two more games, and New York Rangers (207), who have played four more. And one gets the sense the more they do, the more they’ll be blocking their own shot at a Stanley Cup.
However, at this point head coach Michel Therrien’s system won’t change. The Habs will live and die by it. And, admittedly, they have been playing well considering their opposition. That’s the only thought on their minds right now, as it should be: getting past the Bruins.
One can debate the finer points of blocking shots all night long—i.e., whether constantly putting yourself in harm’s way is beneficial to a long playoff run or not—but the fact remains, excluding them from the equation, Montreal is doing exactly what it needs to be doing: improving in possession as the series goes on.
It of course remains to be seen if the Habs can continue with this trend. It would honestly be a stretch to say that the Habs have “got this” and all they need to do is do what they’ve been doing and they’ll beat the Bruins and move on. However, they will put themselves in a position to, and, against the first-place Bruins, Habs fans can’t ask for anything more.
All possession stats taken from Extra Skater unless otherwise indicated.