It’s a good time to be a fan of the Montreal Canadiens.
And yet, according to general manager Marc Bergevin (h/t TVA Sports's Renaud Lavoie), the team’s record to date doesn’t prove a thing:
He’s right, of course. If the NHL handed out Stanley Cups based on which team was leading the league in points on November 17, the San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals would both have picked up championships over the last decade.
Early regular-season performance is less important than long-term regular-season performance, which in turn is less important than getting the job done in the playoffs.
But there are other reasons to take Montreal’s success with a grain of salt.
One of those reasons is the shootout.
The Habs are a sparkling 4-0 in the skills competition, having scored seven times on 15 shots while the team’s goalies have turned aside 12 of 15 opposition attempts. Maybe it’s skill or maybe it’s luck, but in terms of what it says about the team’s true talent and its ability to win playoff games, it really doesn’t matter one bit.
Another reason is that Montreal is winning pretty much all its close games (7-1 as of this writing). That sounds counterintuitive, so I’ll explain.
Winning close games is either a sign of ability to get things done in the clutch—in which case it’s good—or a sign that the bounces have been going a given team’s way—which suggests that straight wins and losses don’t accurately reflect the team’s performance because it has been getting the breaks.
A good indicator of what it really means is the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings, a team that ranked 27th in the NHL with a 17-29 record in one-goal games, right behind the miserable Edmonton Oilers. The Kings had great underlying numbers all year but finished eighth in the West because they were losing close games.
As a result, while many in the analytics community picked Los Angeles as a dark-horse Cup contender—they won it all that year—they were underrated by the hockey community at large because the standings didn’t accurately reflect the team’s talent level.
Another good indicator is last season’s results.
The best team in the league in 2013-14 in one-goal games was Colorado, which went 28-4-8 and had a shocking climb up the standings. The Avs were ultimately eliminated in the first round and have struggled badly in the early going this year.
Meanwhile, 27th-ranked Chicago (17-23) came within a period of going to the Stanley Cup Final.
None of this makes the Canadiens a bad team. The club is middle-of-the-pack in terms of possession metrics like Corsi and Fenwick at even strength, hovering around the 50 percent mark.
With a well above-average goalie like Carey Price, we would expect Montreal’s goal ratio to outperform its possession numbers by a bit. The penalty kill is fine and if head coach Michel Therrien and his staff can figure out the power play, there is no reason why the Canadiens can’t be a very good team.
What they aren’t, however, is the best team in the league. In this case, the standings lie.