MONTREAL — The Canadiens have rediscovered offence during their recent playoff push.
For most of this season, the Canadiens have relied on goaltending, defence and special teams, and they forged one of the best records in the Eastern Conference with some of the worst offensive numbers.
The Canadiens have scored fewer goals than any other team currently holding a playoff position in the Eastern Conference and went into Friday night’s game against the Ottawa Senators with an average of 2.52 goals a game, which ranked 20th in the league.
The Canadiens’ play in 5-on-5 situations has been embarrassing. Heading into Friday’s game, the Canadiens had scored 122 goals while playing 5-on-5, which ranked 28th in the league. The Canadiens are better when the even-strength numbers are 4-on-4. They ranked second in that situation with 11 goals and that’s probably because there’s more room for the Canadiens to use their speed and skill.
But coach Michel Therrien says there is some good news.
“We’re getting better,” he said.
En route to securing a playoff spot, the Canadiens put together an 8-2-0 run heading into Ottawa and the offence brought back memories of the team that averaged more than three goals a game in the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Only Pittsburgh and the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks scored more goals last season.
In their recent run, the Canadians scored 32 goals, an average of 3.2 per game, and 26 of them were scored at even strength.
The acquisition of Thomas Vanek is one of the reasons the Canadiens are scoring more, although Therrien’s original idea of using the sniper to provide more balance wasn’t a success. When Vanek first joined the Canadiens at last month’s trade deadline, Therrien used him with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta. It’s possible they would have developed some chemistry over time, but the team was struggling and Therrien decided to load up a line with his best offensive players — Vanek, Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais.
It was a bit of a gamble because Desharnais and Pacioretty have a history going back to their days with the American Hockey League’s Hamilton Bulldogs and they tend to seek each other out on the ice. But they have welcomed Vanek and we’ve seen Pacioretty display his playmaking skills, while Desharnais has played the sniper role.
The other Canadiens lines continue to be an ongoing mix-and-match exercise. The kids — Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk — are all right, Plekanec plays superb two-way hockey, and veterans Gionta and Daniel Brière have settled into roles in which they are comfortable.
Finding the right role for Lars Eller has been more of a challenge, while Rene Bourque continues to frustrate the coaching staff and fans. Bourque has size, speed and talent, but can’t seem to put them all together. The last two times Bourque was a healthy scratch, he responded by scoring a goal in his return and the key might be to sit him down every other game.
While there had been uptick in even-strength scoring heading into Ottawa, the Canadiens saw their production go down on the power play, which is why the team spent a good portion of its final practice in Florida on this aspect of the game.
Montreal’s power play ranked in the top five in the NHL over the first quarter of the season, but the numbers dipped as defences keyed on point men Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban. Heading into Friday’s games, the Canadiens ranked 16th with a success rate of 17.9 per cent.
The addition of Vanek provides an option down low and he has scored two of his six goals with the Canadiens on the power play. But the overall performance of the power play declined over the 10-game run. The Canadiens scored six goals in 42 opportunities for a success rate of 14.2 per cent.
The problem is that while the Canadiens are involving more players in the power play, they seem too intent on making the perfect play.
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