The Canadiens are Actually Good.
Their cinderella run to the Cup Finals is not a fluke or a travesty - it's been a long time coming.
Is there any other sport in which a cinderella run is perceived as an existential threat to the sanctity of the league? There has been no shortage of pearl-clutching by hockey fans and writers since it became clear that the underdog Canadiens actually had a chance of knocking off the Golden Knights, and the “hockey is so dumb/hockey is too random/now GMs will learn bad lessons” reactions came quick after they finished the job.
The premise is pretty simple: the Habs won 24 out of 56 games in the regular season, a .420 record if the loser point didn’t exist, in a division generally considered to be pretty weak at the high end. They utterly collapsed in the second half of the season following a bizarre coaching change and nearly forfeited a spot in the playoffs that was almost assured. In the past three seasons they have missed the playoffs once and barely made it twice - both qualifications that might not have happened had the season been 82 games. Now they have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, defeating two Real Cup Contenders™ in the process, through a combination of stingy defensive play and elite goaltending. Ergo, we have yet more evidence that parity is out of control, the sport is Under Threat by a boring team, and won’t somebody please think of the hypothetical new fan who turns on a wretched Habs game and swears off the sport forever?!?
This horror is misplaced. I have good news for those who are feeling despondent by the success of the Canadiens: the Habs are not a crappy fluke team goaltending their way to the finals that are going to inspire legions of mediocre imitators and prove the regular season meaningless and ruin the sport and kill fun. They’re a good team who have been overdue for success for years according to all the measures that typically predict success and have happened to find it at a pretty opportune time.
In the past three regular seasons, the Habs rank 3rd in 5v5 scoring chance (expected goals) share, 2nd in shot attempt share, 3rd in unblocked shot attempt share, and twelfth in goal share. Despite their reputation for poor finishing, in that time they scored 5v5 goals at the 8th-highest rate in the league - much higher than the Wild (13th), Hurricanes (16th), Blues (17th), Bruins (19th), or Islanders (21st).
It is pretty much unanimously accepted in the stat-aware section of hockey fans that shot attempt (Corsi) share and expected goal share are objectively the most predictive measure of future outcomes we have (more than goals or standings points). And sure enough, in the past two seasons, where the goals share went down, the Habs had a shooting percentage of 7.5% (27th) and a 99.1 PDO (25th).
And yet many of the same people who use these stats have selectively ignored that regarding the Habs on the basis of their lack of “star power” and “finishing talent.” I admit that I myself have gone to great lengths to rationalize the gap between the Habs’ excellent analytical profile and their results. I even argued in the past that they must be bamboozling the public statistical models in some way, although the release of some proprietary data by SportLogiq - which is even higher on the Habs than the public stuff - made me cut that out.
The fact of the matter is that the Habs have been an excellent 5v5 team for years, driven by excellent players. Since 2018, Brendan Gallagher is 7th in the league in 5v5 goals, ahead of Tavares, Connor, Panarin, Stone, Marchand, MacKinnon, and many other stars; Philip Danault’s 44 primary assists at 5v5 rank 16th, ahead of Scheifele, Matthews, O’Reilly, and Aho. Hell, the Habs’ first line was the best in the league at 5v5 in that time:
The problem for Montréal has been special teams, overtime, and - as odd as it seems to say now - goaltending. The Habs have had a bottom five powerplay and a bottom ten penalty kill over the past three seasons, and have ranked above-average in a special team once in that time (their 2018-19 PK). Even having their non-even strength play regress to average would be a big boost. In 3v3 overtime, their 15-21 record ranks 26th in the league in the past three seasons. 3v3 OT is of course not exactly a common postseason occurence since, seriously, can you imagine a ref calling four penalties in playoff overtime, let alone at the same time? (In fact, since 2007-08 under ten minutes total of 3v3 play has occurred in the postseason).
Finally, since 2016 Carey Price has been, to put it gently, a less-than-ideal regular season performer.
Prior to the acquisition of Jake Allen, their parade of misfit toy backup goalies has been extremely poor as well. The Habs’ insistence on getting their money’s worth by overplaying a struggling Price and underpaying for depth in net cost the Habs dearly prior to this season.
Last but not least, let’s remember that the Habs’ 2021 regular season abruptly turning to shit happened to coincide almost exactly with a key injury to Brendan Gallagher.
Add it all up and you have a team that constantly demonstrated an ability to control play at even strength and, as a result, had the potential to do great things if the goals started to go in, the special teams got hot (or rather, not terrible), and/or the goalie figured things out. Should we be surprised that it happened now or that it didn’t happen sooner?
There’s no doubt that the Canadiens came out flat against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They were significantly outplayed in every sense in their first few games, and deserved their 3-1 series deficit. Something changed after that, and as tempting as it is to say it, it wasn’t just Carey Price. In games 5, 6, and 7 combined, the Leafs had 8.6 expected goals and the Habs had 7.6. That’s basically a coin flip, and the Habs managed to gut it out and win all three.
Then they played the Jets. And while sure, they were just the Jets, and we know how bad Winnipeg is analytically and defensively and all that, this is still a team that only narrowly got outplayed by the Oilers (the xG differential between them was 0.3). And the Habs pulverized them. Not only did they sweep them convincingly in terms of scoring chances, they did so by the biggest margin ever recorded in a playoff series.
In fourteen seasons and hundreds of series, many between powerhouses and total pretenders, none had ever even come close to Montréal’s dismantling of the Jets.
And then we get to Vegas. Vegas is a really really good possession team at 5v5 - that’s kind of their thing. They rack up dangerous scoring chances at insane rate, even if they don’t always capitalize on them. Since losing the 2018 Cup finals, Vegas outchanced their opponents by solid margins in six straight series… until they met the Habs.
Even if you completely toss goaltending out the window, no team has played Vegas better than the Habs did in the past three postseasons. Not even close.
Credit Carey Price for a lot of the Habs’ success and give him the Conn Smythe if you want - he’s been great, the second-best goalie in the playoffs behind only Andrei Vasilevskiy. He clearly inspires a confidence in his teammates and Montréal fans which, as a Penguins fan, is something alien and new to me. But he is absolutely not the only reason they are where they are. Montréal might be getting the “lol hockey is random” treatment, but they haven’t earned that dismissal. The randomness of hockey manifests in variable puck bounces and percentage luck fluctuations which are usually the culprit behind weird small-sample hot streaks, but as of this writing, the Habs literally have a PDO of exactly 100. This team is playing really really well, from top to bottom, and deserves to be where they are right now. The style they’re playing right now isn’t new for the team or some trap that they've activated just to ruin fun - it’s what they’ve been doing for years. They just got better players to do it.
On some level, the annoyance at Montréal’s success (from non-rival fans/media) has bugged me mostly because it plays into a big pet peeve of mine, where fans bizarrely premise their enjoyment of the sport on how it would play to an imaginary “new fan,” what certain outcomes would mean for ratings, and other stuff that does not actually affect them in any meaningful way. Whereas NBA fans can just enjoy a cinderella run and appreciate an amazing performance by a star player, NHL fans feel the need to have a Discourse on out-of-control parity, what this says about the regular season, and what would happen if - god forbid - a non-hockey fan was exposed to the wretched play of these boring Canadiens. At some point, you gotta just watch and enjoy the hockey and stop playing dress-up as the head of NHL marketing.
In a similar genre is the paralyzing fear that teams will learn the “wrong” lesson if the Habs won the Cup this year, and focus on getting bigger and tougher and blah blah blah. Guess what - teams learn the wrong lesson after every team wins the Cup. The Lightning won last year with dynamic star performances and the “lesson” was that it was all because they were big and hard to play against. The Blues won the year before and it was because they were big and hard to play against. The Capitals won the year before that and it was because they were big and hard to play against. The Penguins won on skill and speed the year before that and even they somehow concluded that they needed to be bigger and harder to play against. If the NHL is going to change its tactical preferences, it’s not going to be because a certain more fun team wins the Cup (and certainly not the Lightning, Isles, or Golden Knights).
I also have to ask: is Vegas really that more fun to watch than Montréal? The two teams really are not that different if you set aside the Knights’ superior on-paper star power. They both generate offence primarily through a combination of point shots, scramble plays at the net-front, and quick-punch rush attempts. Both teams pile up 5v5 Corsi and xGoal numbers, both teams habitually underperform them. Both teams defend in large part by aggressively forechecking and using big defencemen to take away time and space with plays of often questionable legality. How about Carolina, the fashionable analytical darling team that scores less than the Canadiens at 5v5 and plays a similarly gruff point-shot-forecheck-dump-and-chase brand of hockey but without any of the fun rush plays? And neither of these guys even have the fun of a cinderella story.
And you know what? I like watching the Habs. Like the Isles, they’re a boring team in theory but not in actuality. Few teams can strike out of nowhere like they can, counter-attacking with dynamic speed and keeping opponents on their toes. They have exciting young players in Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki, and especially Cole Caufield, who’s a joy to watch. They have a goalie with a penchant for highlight reel saves. And they play legitimately smart and sound defensive hockey. This is exactly the type of Cinderella run we should enjoy, an unlikely underdog team legitimately proving they belong and not just fluking their way through off goaltending and lucky bounces. Maybe they won’t win the Cup - they’ll be the underdogs again no matter what happens in Game 7 - but regardless of what happens, I’ll remember this run fondly. And unless you're a Leafs or Bruins fan (my condolences), so should you.