Separating the top teams in the NHL East

For a top four team in their conference, Montreal Canadiens have some interesting statistics showing gaping holes in their game.

Problems, which will need to be addressed before the end of the season to maintain any sort of positive record and move above the Tampa Bay Lighting to be able to clinch the first seed in the National Hockey League Eastern Conference.

But what will it take to do this?

Looking at the Canadiens offensive play from an analytics perspective, they sit quite low in most offensive puck possession metrics. They sit low in Fenwick and Corsi measurements, usually hovering around 20th to 21st in the league.

For those who are unaware, Corsi measurements look at the total number of shots a team takes and gives up, except it counts saves, shots that miss the net and blocked shots. It matters because possession and the ability to keep the puck in the offensive zone plays a vital role in winning championships.

The Fenwick measurement is also important, as it is much the same as the Corsi, but take blocked shots out of the equation. Blocked shots are something the defence is believed to have control of. It is seen as a skill and something a defence must do.

Well above them sit the Tampa Bay Lightning, who can be looked at as the benchmark team in the east, and Montreal kryptonite.

The Lightning reduced Montreal to a mere spec of dust in both game four and game 40 of the 2014/2015 NHL season. Both teams play a similar style, skillful, little fighting and whilst they are physical they will rely on pure skill to get them over the line.

People say Montreal are scared of the Lightning, and that what separates the two teams is purely composure and a mental dilemma.

This may be part of the reason when the two teams are playing each other, but what separates Tampa Bay from Montreal and the rest of the Eastern Conference is their ability to maintain puck possession and simply shoot the puck.

The annoying and cringe-worthy expression ‘shoot the puck and good things will happen’ stays true to the Lightning this season, who lead the NHL in shots for percentage (SF%) sitting on 55% and sit in the top ten for all shot measurements including Fenwick for (1360), Corsi for (1831), CF60 (56.9) and SF60 (31.0).

Enter Montreal’s ‘saving’ grace, and the aspect of the game that has stopped the Lightning from being the best team in the NHL. Goaltending.

Montreal’s goaltenders sit second in the NHL behind the Nashville Predators in total save percentage with 93.31%. They also sit second in PDO behind the Predators. PDO measures a teams shooting percentage, plus their save percentage. Montreal PDO sits on 102.4%.

These two statistics virtually make up 50% of an entire hockey match (depending on which way you look at it) and is purely and simply the reason why Montreal are not ranked 20th in the NHL right now.

It is also the reason why Tampa Bay is not ranked above Anaheim or Nashville. Tampa Bay sit 22nd in total save percentage on 91.58% and 7th in PDO on 100.8%, mainly due to their inflated shots on goal average.

The above statistics help explain the reason why the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning are so close together, yet so far when they take the ice together.

It is not a mental thing for Montreal. It is a puck possession issue. Being able to maintain a high level of puck possession and generate offence is something they do not do well for a second seed team, and will need to improve to take it that one step further.

This will be easier for Montreal to do than it will be for the Lightning to improve their goaltending. Ben Bishop is not getting any better, yet Montreal have a number of breakout players such as Dale Weise, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, Jiri Sekac and Sven Andrighetto who will only improve over the rest of the season.

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