The NHL's Northeast division this year is like a starlet jumping out of a birthday cake. The cake doesn't seem to have a lot of substance until you find out what was really hiding in there. Then you just sit back in appreciation and watch the dance. This time last year, nobody would have expected to see four out of the five teams in the Northeast sitting very comfortably in playoff positions. Buffalo missed out last year, and nobody needs to be reminded of where the leafs and Habs finished. Boston finished second in the conference by leading the Northeast, but had fewer points than half the Atlantic division. Ottawa just squeaked into the post-season in eighth place.
This season, so far, it's an entirely different picture, with last year's lowly Habs leading the conference and the Bruins, Senators and leafs all within three points of them. Toronto, the lowest-ranked of the bunch when you take Boston's five games in hand into consideration, is still five points above the last playoff spot. The Northeast, then, is where the Habs' biggest rivals for post-season position reside.
The problem is, the Habs have not been beating those teams, which, after last night's loss to Ottawa, is becoming a little worrisome. So far, the Canadiens have played eight of a scheduled 18 games against NE opponents. That's 42% of their 19 total games to date. Those games have resulted in a 2-4-0-2 record. Of their total 27 points, games against the NE division have only accounted for six, or 22%. Of 16 possible points available for wins in those eight games, the Habs have given up twelve and clawed back 2 loser points in shootouts. That's a big pile of points that could make or break a team in April.
On the other hand, the Canadiens have a sparkling 10-0-1 record against the rest of the conference, good for 21 points, or 78% of the 27 they've earned. In terms of goal differential, the Habs are -6 against the NE, scoring 16 goals and giving up 22. Against the rest of the conference, they're +22, with 36GF and 14GA.
The big question is, why is the difference between the Habs' results against their own division versus conference rivals so very glaring? There are several possible reasons. First, all four division opponents play a similar style of aggressive forecheck with speed and lots of body contact. The Canadiens have had problems with that kind of game for years. Theoretically, with new coaches, a new system and different players, the same old problem shouldn't be a factor, but new cultures don't graft themselves onto a team overnight.
Second, there are still questions about the Habs' size relative to the other teams in the division. Broadcaster and blogger James Mirtle compiles the average heights, weights and ages of NHL teams every year, and for this season, the Habs do show up low on the lists for both height and weight. At a shade over 197 lbs for average weight, the Canadiens are 28th in the league. And at just about 6-feet tall on average, they rank last. In comparison, the Bruins are 26th for weight and 21st for height, the Sabres are 19th for weight and 13th for height, the leafs are 11th for weight and 8th for height and the Senators are 5th for weight and 3rd for height. The average difference between the Canadiens and Senators is ten pounds and two inches. Between Habs and leafs it's eight pounds and just over an inch and a half. Those may seem like negligible numbers when factors like speed, skill, leadership, injuries, systems and scheduling play their parts in wins and losses as well. However, in this era of NHL parity, getting consistently drilled by guys taller and heavier than you will wear you down over the course of the game and the season.
The problem is underlined when you compare the size of the defence corps of the NE teams specifically. The Canadiens D, including every blueliner who's played a game this year, averages a shade under six feet tall, and about 206 pounds. Compare that to Buffalo's almost 6'3", 212-pound average. Boston is about the same. The Senators D average 6'2" and 204 pounds (although that incorporates Erik Karlsson's puny 175...they have 3 defencemen over 220 pounds while the Habs have none). And the leafs defence are about 6'3" and 207 pounds. What that means is bigger forwards on the other teams come up against a comparatively small Habs defence corps, which starts to struggle when pressured with a tough forecheck. On the other end, smaller Canadiens' players like Gionta, Gallagher, Desharnais and even Plekanec have to face D-men that can physically overpower them. The wonder isn't that the Canadiens lose to teams in their own division, but that they're able to incorporate their sound systems and skill to beat most other teams.
Perhaps, too, there's an element of pschological drama involved in NE division games. The leafs, Bruins and Senators often seem to be more "up" for those contests than the Canadiens do, especially at the Bell Centre. And, of course, eight games are a rather small sample size, no matter how concerning the results. Factors like playing a great road game against Ottawa, but hitting three posts behind a hot Ben Bishop, can skew the numbers and create an impression of the situation being more dire than it is.
The good news here is only 34% of the Habs' remaining 29 games are against the Northeast division, 66% are versus conference opponents. If they keep up something close to their current pace, even with weakness against their own division, they will end up in the playoffs. The concern is what will happen once they get there. If the playoffs started today, the Canadiens would face the Tampa Bay Lightning, but with three division rivals in the mix, the chances of avoiding them all on a deep run are slim. That's why the Canadiens have to learn how to beat the teams in their own backyard. Maybe it means being more disciplined and improving special teams. Maybe it's a matter of adjusting lines to get some of those bigger forwards like Eller, Cole, Bourque and Pacioretty matched against the biggest, toughest D-men.
Over to you, Michel Therrien. Hope you've got a good one ready to jump out of that cake or the springtime party won't last long.