Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin behind the bench on September 24th 2010
The Montreal Canadiens are off to a surprising start for most, almost as surprising as their conference final finish last season. There are many reasons as to why they are sitting atop their division and tied for fourth in the league.
It's actually the same reason why they had such a deep playoff run last spring. They've been winning close defensive hockey games, buying into Jacques Martin's system.
Sure, lots of credit goes to the players for executing, but the majority of it should be given to a coach who started off the season without his best player (Markov) and has had to deal with a slumping start to the season from his most skilled players (Gomez, Gionta, Cammalleri).
Martin's system is very simple: defense first. All players are accountable for what happens in the defensive zone; no one has a free ride when it comes to defense. The defensive accountability has cut the number of shots by opposing teams in half, compared to last seasons 35+ shots per game average.
The entire system is designed to make the goaltender's job easier, which it has with the Canadiens averaging about 25 shots against per game. In a league where a .915 save percentage is considered good, those ten shots less per game accounts for one goal less per game on average as well.
Not only have the Canadiens cut shots on net by 33 percent; they've cut down the number of quality scoring chances, meaning Price's saves are much easier to make.
The Martin mantra has always preached these three things: limit quality scoring chances, good goaltending and strong special teams. All these things are happening (except for the power play, although it did go two for five last night against the Bruins) and the team is winning because of it.
When your top players are either unavailable or invisible, you need to play solid defensive hockey and capitalize on the mistakes you force on the opponent, which the Canadiens are doing to a tee.
The Canadiens' success in the playoffs originated from the same strategies as their success early on this season: stifling defence, fantastic goaltending and good special teams. For that you can thank Jacques Martin.