February 09 2013 12:18PM
The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 in the opening game of the season, with Ben Scrivens of all people recording the opening night victory. Both clubs have been good since that night: Toronto having gone .500, escaping the fact that they only have three forward lines, and Montreal has gone 6-2-1, although they have the second highest team PDO ranking in the NHL as of February 4.
Montreal however look a lot better than most pundits predicted coming in to the season. They were horrible last season, particularly down the stretch and it was generally assumed that they weren't as bad as their record indicated. That said, they've been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference this season, have seen the return of Andrei Markov, escaped holdouts from P.K. Subban and an injury from Max Pacioretty, and are getting excellent 5-on-5 goaltending. They are third in the East in "points per game" although it is still extremely early in the season.
There are a number of focus points I could touch on this preview. I'll stray away from Montreal's puck-possession ability since it's still a) very early in the season, b) they've played nearly an exclusively home schedule and c) they've played a pretty easy schedule as well.
I think my focus will be on how the heck are Toronto an above .500 team even though their coach insists on playing only three forward lines? If you know much about Pythagorean Expectation, you'd know that the Leafs are playing above their heads, relying on one-goal wins to get victories.
The Leafs are an okay team from the top nine forwards out. The fourth line, usually made up of a quality centreman named David Steckel or Jay McClement, Colton Orr, and either Mike Brown, Frazer McLaren or Leo Komarov, has been a possession black hole this season. When they're on the ice, the Leafs frequently get caught in their own end.
"Our players have to feel that they're protected and in the intensity of a 48-game schedule the points mean that much more and [fights] are the things that set the tone," said Carlyle. "In the league as a whole, there has been a revitalization of that role. Teams have gone out and acquired that."
This quote struck me as dubious. The Quebec Nordiques were the most improved team between the 1993-94 season and the 1995 shortened season, going from a non-playoff club to best in the East in the regular season. They didn't do it with pugilism—those wimpy Frenchmen only fought 31 teams in the '95 season, 21st out of 26 teams in the NHL. Playoff teams averaged 38.0 fights during the regular season. Non-playoff teams averaged 38.1 fights during the regular season. Again, fighting really doesn't matter, short season or not, it has no effect on whether the team wins.
Scoring goals, however, does, and I found it odd when a comment was posted on my game recap from the Leafs-Jets game on Thursday that somebody said "The Orr/Mclaren/Komarov line in the third period was the difference maker in the game." I was even more surprised when I found out Randy Carlyle said something, or a variation of the like.
Orr had three shifts in the third period and was benched midway through. If Carlyle trusts his fourth line so much, why doesn't he give them more minutes?
Puck Drop: Depends when the torches are raised. Scheduled start 7 PM EST
If you must find a goon, I hate it say it, but do what the Canadiens did. They brought in Brandon Prust, who is among other things, a pretty good hockey player who won't hinder the abilities of Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher when he plays on a line with them.
Stupid broadcasters and commentators will definitely make the comparison between Orr and Prust. I think there are few people inside hockey who can make the distinction that Prust is more than a fighter, and one of them I trust to be Marc Bergevin who spent years in Chicago with a team that found alternate uses for its goons.
Here's the difference between Colton Orr and Brandon Prust, via Behind the Net. Relative Corsi is a measure of how you affected your teams' overall shot differential while you were on the ice. Time on ice per game, is, well, time on ice per game at 5-on-5:
|Prust TOI||Prust Corsi Rel||Orr TOI||Orr Corsi Rel|
Prust played more and hurt his team a little less. Third and fourth liners will seldom play with Corsi Rel's of above 0.0, and if they do, it's probably because something is going horribly wrong in the top six. Prust has established himself as a decent third line guy who can play a few extra shifts than your average fighter, and play in somewhat tough defensive minutes as well.
The leap will be made that the early success of rookies Galchenyuk (1G, 6A, +6) and Gallagher (4G, 2A, +7) is thanks to Prust, who can protect them, give them the confidence to crash the net blah blah blah. The reality is that both players are producing above their means. That line are among the league leaders in PDO thus far (Galchenyuk and Prust are 6 and 7 in the league, Gallagher didn't qualify in games played yet) which means they're getting helpful percentages covering for a relatively low amount of on-ice shots.
Prust isn't an all-star, but he's an effective third liner and Montreal coach Michel Therrien had to find somewhere for him on the lineup, so why not with his rookies? Here is how the Canadiens have been deploying themselves:
Erik Cole - David Desharnais - Max Pacioretty
Brian Gionta - Tomas Plekanec - Rene Bourque
Travis Moen - Lars Eller - Colby Armstrong
Brandon Prust - Alex Galchenyuk - Brendan Galalgher
Alexei Emelin - Andrei Markov
Francis Bouillon - P.K. Subban
Josh Gorges - Raphael Diaz
It's an interesting lineup, one that's weak in the middle if anything, but very strong on the wings. Cole, Gionta, and Pacioretty are still good NHL players, and Rene Bourque has played this season like a wholly productive player.
Not only are Gionta, Plekanec and Bourque No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 on the team in shots on goal, His line gets the tough match ups, so expect Tomas Plekanec to see a lot of face-offs against Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. Therrien likes to keep his two offensive lines, in this case the first and the fourth, starting in the offensive zone. Mikhail Grabovski should see a lot of defensive zone time as Carlyle attempts to match Grabovski up against Desharnais and Pacioretty.
Pacioretty, coming back from an emergency appendectomy, still has yet to score on the season. He's taken 16 shots in 6 games, not a terrific rate per game but still one that ought to have yielded a goal by now.
The Habs have a dangerous powerplay as well. Andrei Markov is back and is playing fabulous hockey. He's scored four powerplay goals already, leads the team in minutes, is third on the team in Quality of Competition and starts in the offensive zone just 44.9% of the time. Montreal have been breaking in Subban against easy competition so far on the year, so I expect he'll see some minutes with the Leafs' "Kid Line" with Matt Frattin and Nazem Kadri.
This game is going to be better, hopefully, than the first time the teams met up. Montreal has some interesting weapons, are not dominant in any one area except maybe goaltending, and present a difficult challenge for a team like the Leafs' that's stacked up front but have very little in the way of depth. It could be a tough night for the kids, and their penalty kill will need to be on. There's also no safe spot to hide the fourth line, which presents a yet another matchup problem for Carlyle.
James Reimer is starting. Steckel and Komisarek are still the healthy scratches. Jonas Siegel makes mention of a possible Leo Komarov-Mikhail Grabovski-Nik Kulemin unit. It seems Carlyle is going to play anybody on that line except Clarke MacArthur.