NHL Analysis: Boston-Montreal Rivalry Heats Up

The rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins is one of the best in hockey and the first half of the NHL’s truncated regular season suggest that 2013 could provide a special installment of that rivalry’s history. Halfway through the season, the Canadiens and Bruins are playing the best hockey in the Eastern Conference. Montreal is atop the standings. Boston is only a point behind coming into Sunday, despite having played three fewer games.

I won’t pretend to be objective about this—I’m a Bruins fan and I loathe the Canadiens. But in today’s NHL analysis, I will make my best effort at a fair comparison of the two teams, what they do well, and where the weaknesses are, with an eye to seeing whether each team can be expected to play deep into the spring.

OFFENSE: Montreal is the better offensive team, ranking 5th in the NHL while Boston is 10th. Those rankings are on a per-game basis, so the additional games the Canadiens have played don’t matter. The key has been that Montreal is much more efficient with their shots. The Bruins are superior when it comes to shot generation, but the Canadiens have been able to light the lamp.

The question would be whether this is a fluke, where Boston’s raw shot volume will eventually translate into more goals. It’s certainly possible, but the 22-25 games each team has played aren’t an insignificant sample size, so we have to consider that perhaps there’s something intrinsic to the way each team is put together that causes the disparity between shots and goals.

Boston relies heavily on their centers—all four players who rotate at this spot are in the top 60 of the NHL in either goals or assists, meaning that if talent were distributed equally they would all be one of the best two offensive players on a given team. Patrice Bergeron is the best and the frontliner, but there’s little to any dropoff when you bring in David Krejci, Tyler Seguin or Brad Marchand.

What Boston needs is more production from the wings and this where Nathan Horton comes in. He was the key scorer in this team’s run to the 2011 Stanley Cup and his injury for last year’s playoffs doomed any chance at a repeat bid. Horton has seven goals—not bad—but they need a little bit more. Teams that don’t have top scorers on the wings, players who can really finish, tend to be inefficient with their shots.

Montreal isn’t as deep in talent, but they have a solid all-around offensive player in right winger Max Pacioretty, who scores and distributes. Tomas Plekanac has 11 goals from the center position. The fact the Canadiens have a center who is oriented to score rather than pass is perhaps one explanation for Montreal’s lower shot totals, but higher efficiency with the ones they get.

DEFENSE: Boston is an elite defensive team, third in the NHL at goal prevention, while Montreal is a good one, ranking 10th. In Boston’s case, it starts with the goaltender. Tuuka Raask has been a fabulous replacement for Tim Thomas, with his 92.7% save rate ranking sixth in the league. The Thomas-to-Raask baton toss might go down in Boston sports history with Williams-to-Yaz in left field for the Red Sox. Pardon me a little hyperbole, but Raask has lived up to the pressure and the defense around him does its share, in limiting exposure to shot volume.

Montreal’s defense is a team effort. Goaltender Carey Price is only 25th in save percentage, but the team defense—as defined by shots allowed—is better than Boston’s. The Canadiens are a top five team in shot prevention, while Boston ranks 7th.

The question here would be how far Montreal can go with shaky play from the goalie, a position more important than quarterback is in the NFL. My inclination is that the Canadiens should not worry too much at this point. The team defensive effort will keep them winning through the regular season and Price has a good enough track record to think he can turn it around. If he’s still in the bottom third of the league when we preview Montreal’s first round playoff series, then it’s time to worry. But not now.

SPECIAL TEAMS/5-ON-5: Here we’ll summarize how each team does in power play situations, and how they fare when teams are at even strength. The reason both teams are among the league’s best can be found here—they’re both outstanding in 5-on-5 play, with Montreal ranking 3rd and Boston 6th. That means they’re executing in the normal flow of play and not dependent on how a game might be officiated on a night-to-night basis. It spells consistency and that’s what both teams have shown.

Boston’s special teams are an extreme—they’re a great penalty-killing defense, but lousy at capitalizing on their own chances with the man advantage. We should note this hasn’t changed since their Stanley Cup run, so it’s something the Bruins have learned to live with. Montreal is pretty good on both ends of special teams, ranking above the league average both ways, but not outstanding in either case.

I believe Boston is the better team. You can fairly argue that even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t say so. True enough, as I’ve never forgiven a group of Montreal fans for their attempts to mock the statue of Bobby Orr outside the Garden when I was there for a 2011 playoff game (a wise group of Bruins fans stepped in to politely remove the offending fans from the scene. Yes, it was all very polite). But the Bruins have the superior goaltender, a deeper cast of offensive talent and once the number of games played starts to equalize, Boston will likely past Montreal in both the Northeast Division and the Eastern Conference.

But whoever wins the division, both teams have established themselves as serious contenders, as the schedule shifts into the second half.