The Calgary Flames are a tough team. The Tampa Bay Lightning have no defence. Sidney Crosby is a great player, but whines too much. Sometimes a team or a player creates such a strong identity based on an image or behaviour that even when the behaviour changes or the image is no longer true, it's tough for fans to see beyond it. So, even when the Flames' top lines include Rene Bourque and Matt Stajan, they're still "the gritty Calgary Flames." Even when Tampa adds Ohlund, Meszaros and Hedman, we still say their defence is as bad as it was two years ago. And although Crosby has toned down the attitude noticably, he still carries the "whiner" label. Even when truth has long evolved into myth, identities are tough to shake.
The Canadiens, being the oldest and most storied team in hockey are involved in more than their share of myths. Beyond the historic, though, a lot of the things people accept as fact about the Habs just don't stand up to close scrutiny. I thought I'd look at some of the things a lot of us believe unquestioningly and see if maybe we should be questioning them after all.
-The Habs are a small team. Just about every analyst who talks about the Canadiens cites this as a major weakness, particularly when it comes to the team's centres. It just isn't true, however. I decided to look at team averages by position, rather than overall, as goalie size doesn't really matter when it comes to assessing skaters and big goalies can skew team numbers. On average, the Canadiens are 6 feet tall and 199 pounds at forward. That ranks them about halfway down the list of NHL teams. On defence, (thanks to Hal Gill) they're an average of 6'2" and 213 pounds. That has them in the league's top ten. So, overall, they are not a small team. If anything, they're on par with about half the other teams in the league for size. When you compare their top-four centres to the rest of the league's top-four, they are admittedly a little bit smaller than most on average. The Habs' centres are about 5'11" each, and 198 pounds. The league average at the centre position is 6', 200.
-Plekanec is not good in the playoffs. This perception happened largely because of Plekanec himself. His infamous, "I'm playing like a little girl" comment from the playoffs two years ago was not only colourful and memorable; it also created an image of his post-season performance that's since stuck in everyone's heads. Unfortunately, it's not true. Most players' production tends to drop in the post-season, largely due to tighter defensive play and better competition. Scott Gomez, for example, scores at a .81 PPG pace during the regular season, but .71 PPG in the playoffs. Brian Gionta is at .67 PPG in the season and .60 in the spring. Plekanec actually has a smaller drop between his regular-season production, which stands at .65 PPG over his career, and his playoff production, at .62 PPG, than those Cup-winning veterans. Plekanec also has played a fairly small sample size of playoff games, with only 21 under his belt. Considering the marked change in his game this year from one of perimeter puckhandling to a grittier, drive-the-net style, I would imagine the drop-off this season will be even smaller in his case.
-Halak's biggest weakness is his rebound control. The Hockey News recently published some really interesting goalie stats that help interpret that idea more accurately. Halak is first in the league in stopping the first shot, especially beyond 20 feet out. He's 24th in the league for stopping rebounds. This stat, however, is mildly misleading, because it doesn't take into consideration whether the rebound that goes in is the first one off a goalie, or if it's a third or fourth attempt by a player who hasn't been removed from the crease. It does, however, appear that Halak's rebound control and overall focus is affected by the situation in which he's involved. He's perfect in games in which he faces more than forty shots; best in the league in that category. He's also got the best save percentage in the league in one-goal games, at .926, and the third-longest consecutive save streak, at 83. All that means when Halak is on, rebounds are not an issue, and he's on when the situation is difficult, which bodes well for the playoffs.
-The Habs can't compete at even strength. That might have been true earlier in the year, with missing players and just plain bad ones on the bottom two lines. Right now, however, the Canadiens have moved up from last in the league in 5-on-5 goals scored to 25th, a couple of goals removed from 20th. This move has happened in the last ten games. The biggest problem with the Habs at even strength isn't their lack of ability, it's that they don't shoot. They're 29th in the league in shots per game, yet still manage to be at 18th overall in goals scored.
-Injuries aren't an excuse because all teams have them. That's true, of course. But it also depends on which players are hurt at any given time. If you can speculate that a team's highest-paid players are also its most valuable on the ice, the Habs actually rank third in the league for man-games lost to important players. Only Edmonton, which is finishing last, and Detroit, which is on the bubble, lost more salary to injury. Of course, the salary measurement could just mean a team has overpaid less valuable players. So, looking at the total man-games lost to injury, the Habs are sixth in the league with 231. Of that number, 137 are games missed by players in the top-ten scoring positions, including two of the top-four defencemen. Comparing how the team is playing now, when it's nearly healthy, with the way it played when it iced six Bulldogs around Christmas time, I think yes, injuries can be an excuse.
I think a lot of the myths about who the Habs are and what we can realistically expect from them are aging ones. If we look a little bit closer, we can see a better team than the myths would have us believe. It may be in their favour, though, if other teams keep believing they're true.