While there was a repeat champion already crowned in the KHL, and with the defending AHL and CHL champions still alive in their playoffs, it appeared that the chance to have repeat champions in the major hockey leagues around the globe were set. That is, however, until the Montreal Canadiens were invited to the party in the NHL. The Montreal Canadiens shocked the world by defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games, knocking the defending Stanley Cup Champions off the mountain. But I'm not that shocked. In fact, I'd go so far as saying that I saw this coming since the third period in Game Five. Let me explain.
Some people will say that Pittsburgh wasn't good enough to be a champion. That's fine to make that claim, but they were the defending Stanley Cup Champions. They did everything they had to in order to win last season, and that's all that matters.
Is Marc-Andre Fleury an elite goaltender? Again, it's debatable. But he does have a Stanley Cup ring on his finger, and has more Stanley Cup rings than Miikka Kiprusoff, Roberto Luongo, Henrik Lundqvist, Tuukka Rask, Jonathan Quick, Ilya Bryzgalov, and Ryan Miller combined. But I'm not here to debate the merits of one opinionated stats-nerd.
Let's go back to the third period of Game Five. While the Penguins led 2-0 after forty minutes, it was Montreal who applied some serious pressure on the Penguins in that third period, outshooting them 9-6 and outscoring them 1-0. Sure, they were losing, but Montreal went back to what they did so well against Washington: they outworked their opponents.
While Montreal would lose Game Five by a 2-1 score, the hard work they showed in Game Five would carry through the next two games as Pittsburgh was outworked on all the important areas on the ice: shot-blocking, defensive zone coverage, and turnovers. If a team dominates those three areas alone, winning becomes infinitely easier. All three requires an attention to detail, concentration on the task, and a willingness to put forth the effort required to bring the attention and concentration to the ice. In other words, hard work trumps talent.
Haven't you heard this story before on this very site?
Look, there's no doubt that Jaroslav Halak has been the story of these playoffs if you're looking for a one-man story. He's 8-5 thus far, posting a 2.42 GAA and a .933 save percentage, but it's his bottom-of-the-net coverage that has kept Montreal in games. Halak has been one of the better goaltenders at covering up the corners and five-hole this post-season, allowing almost no goals along the ice. Combine that fact with his excellent positioning and wide body, and he suddenly looks unbeatable.
Halak, however, has only been part of the story. Montreal, collectively, has blocked 320 shots thus far in the post-season. Putting that number in context, that's slightly less than San Jose and Philadelphia combined, and both of those teams are still playing. Montreal has blocked 130 more shots than the Chicago Blackhawks, who place second on the blocked shots list. That's sacrifice, and that's hard work. If Halak had faced those additional 320 shots and kept his goals-to-saves ratio the same, Montreal would have surrendered 51 goals through 13 games instead of their current 30 goals-against. 21 additional goals would probably mean no trip to the Eastern Conference Final.
21 goals don't evaporate into thin air, and 320 shots don't just disappear. It takes a willingness to pay attention to that detail, and to concentrate on preventing those shots from reaching the net. That means that Montreal's players back-checked hard to keep Pittsburgh's offence to the outside, and sacrificed their bodies by laying down in front of slapshots and sticking out limbs to deflect pucks off their targets. That takes hard work, and Montreal showed that in spades.
Where Montreal really bears down is on the road. Montreal has been a beast in levelling the playing field in an opponent's building, and a large part of that is owed to their defensive commitment. How are they doing that? Blocking shots. Montreal has more blocked shots on the road than any other team has total blocked shots. Montreal has blocked 195 shots while wearing white. Remember that Chicago has 190 blocked shots in total? Montreal is becoming the epitome of commitment, sacrifice, and hard work away from the Bell Centre as they lead the NHL in blocked shots without their home totals.
Let's run down the list quickly.
- Back-checking? Check.
- Forcing turnovers? Check.
- Blocking shots? Check.
- Skating hard up and down the ice? Check.
A little luck has also benefited the Canadiens thus far, but let's not use luck as a crutch to explain series victories over two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Luck favors the prepared, and there's no doubt that head coach Jacques Martin has his troops ready for every team they match up against. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect". For the Montreal Canadiens, hard work is the cause, and their playoff run through two improbable rounds is the effect.
I can't say this enough, and this should be a mantra for every single player and coach in hockey today:
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!