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Scoring First

If you had the impression that the Canadiens like to score the first goal in playoff hockey, you’d be right. If you had the impression that it was a key to their success, again, you’d be right.

In the ‘Jacques Martin era’, scoring first then smothering the opponent is the recipe for success, and indeed the Canadiens have been quite good at it. It also doesn’t seem to matter whether the Habs score early or late in the first period, so long as they score before their opponents.

Going back to last year’s playoffs, and including the first three games of this post-season, the Canadiens have scored the opening goal in 13 of the 22 total games played (59%). Contrast that with the Habs scoring the first goal in just 53% of their regular season games (44 of 82 games). The Canadiens won 73% of the regular season games in which they scored first.

Back to the playoffs. Of those 13 playoff games in which they scored first, they sport a 10-3 record, good for a win 77% of the time, up just a few points over the regular season. On the flip side, when the Canadiens don’t score first, they’ve won only once (game two vs the Penguins last season). That’s a meagre 11% win percentage, down from 32% in the 2010-2011 regular season. To put it another, more tangible way, in the ’10-’11 regular season, the Habs had a roughly 1 in 3 chance to win a game if the opponents scored first. Over the past 2 playoff years, and including last night’s loss to the Bruins, that chance sits now at 11% – a roughly 1 in 10 chance to pull off the victory. It should also be noted that the lone win that the Canadiens do have when opponents score first came in surmounting a 1-goal deficit. The Habs are winless in the past 2 playoff seasons if they go down 2-0.

Needless to say, scoring the first goal is a huge priority for the Habs, and no doubt the Bruins now recognize that.

Here are some more interesting numbers: The Canadiens have gotten the drop on their opponent in the opening 3 minutes 7 times in their past 22 playoff games, and have won 5 of those games (71%). In fact, you can narrow that down even further: the Habs have scored in the first 2 minutes 6 times (winning 5 of 6 – 83%) and scored in the opening minute 4 times (winning 3 of 4 – 75%) Talk about a quick start and getting off on the right foot! In fact, the later in the period the Habs score the opening goal, the higher the chances of a win becomes. In 3 games they scored the opening goal past the 7 minute mark, winning all three of those games.

The “system” that we love to hate is very effective if the Habs are the first team to score. The downside is that the system all but guarantees a loss if the Habs don’t score first in the playoffs. While we look at last night’s game and tell ourselves that the Habs almost came all the way back, and that if they had just two more minutes they would have tied it, the fact is the Habs needed TWO more goals in order to win the game. The Habs don’t often score four goals, and their record when the opponent scores 3 or more goals was stunningly bad over the regular season: 5-28-8 (hat tip to @HabsWatch). We can console ourselves with the “almost“, and the convincing effort in the third period, but the system doesn’t permit the Habs to play as they did in the third period for 60 minutes. The bottom line is that the Habs need that first goal, and need to play their system if they want to win.

Here’s the list of opening Habs goals over the past couple seasons, (note the two names that keep on coming up):

Opponent Game Scorer Time / Period Result
Washington 1 Cammalleri 12:36 / 1st Win
Washington 2 Gionta 1:00 / 1st Loss
Washington 5 Cammalleri 1:30 / 1st Win
Washington 6 Cammalleri 7:30 / 1st Win
Washington 7 Bergeron 19:30 / 1st Win
Pittsburgh 1 Subban 4:30 / 1st Loss
Pittsburgh 4 Pyatt 2:34 / 1st Win
Pittsburgh 6 Cammalleri 1:13 / 1st Win
Pittsburgh 7 Gionta 0:32 / 1st Win
Philadelphia 3 Cammalleri 7:05 / 1st Win
Philadelphia 5 Gionta 0:59 / 1st Loss
Boston (2011) 1 Gionta 2:44 / 1st Win
Boston (2011) 2 Cammalleri 0:43 / 1st Win

UPDATE: Research done here seems to confirm that scoring first is in fact quite important, though there are other factors that can add gray area to the conversation. Check it out.

  • http://www.HabsAddict.com Kamal Panesar

    Well said, Kyle…

    That being said, I think Montreal will bounce back on Thursday. They learned their lesson (or we hope they did) by taking yesterday’s game almost for granted. It is a mistake that I don’t think they’ll soon repeat.

    It’s amazing how quickly momentum can swing in the playoffs because the pressure is now all on Montreal. Lose on Thursday and they are in a really bad spot!

  • http://www.cowhideandrubber.com Kyle Roussel

    @HabsWatch Thanks for the additional input. It certainly does put an exclamation point on JM’s system. While it has provided us with terrific memories over the past 2 seasons, and while we all love this team to death, the reality is that the Habs are 11-11 under Martin’s watch in the playoffs. Playing .500 hockey in the playoffs will not win you anything any time soon.

    @Kamal Thanks for stopping by! I agree 100% that this system cannot lead to long-term success in the playoffs. To me, it’s harder to play defense than offense, so the Habs will eventually wear out from having to defend so much. On the flip side, the sad reality is that the Canadiens have no choice but to win this way. A system change won’t/can’t happen now, and yet their recipe for success is not a sustainable one.

    It really comes down to scoring first and then defending the house. Because when they are scored on first, it breaks down as follows:
    – falling behind 1-0 is difficult for the Habs to overcome, but it may lead to a win (Habs only won once when being scored on first, and it was just a 1-0 deficit to overcome).
    – falling behind 2+ goals is a guarantee to lose (Habs have not won in past 2 years when falling behind by more than 1 goal).

    I admire the optimism of those who are undaunted by such deficits, and those who look at a game like the comeback on January 8th (Pacioretty in OT) as sources of inspiration and indicators of future success. But I personally can’t ignore the larger body of tangible evidence that says when the Habs fail to score the first goal in playoff action, they lose. Period. I also don’t put a lot of stock in the fact that they *almost* came back to tie it. There’s any amount of rationalizing that we can do to spin last night’s game in our favour. We can say that if Price didn’t have such a big gaffe…if there wasn’t bad luck on the 2nd goal…if Thomas didn’t get lucky in the dying moments of the game…if…if…if. Like you said…too many ifs.

    The point is the Bruins can do the exact same thing for games 1 and 2, and away goes the merry-go-round. What counts in the playoffs is the final score, end of story. In a best 4-of-7 series, there are no moral victories. The regular season is where you look for moral victories. The playoffs are where excuses go to die.

  • http://www.HabsAddict.com Kamal Panesar

    Excellent piece, Kyle!

    Love the data crunching!

    The Habs lack of ability to win when getting scored on first is an indication of the one-dimensionality of the JM system. The Habs only have one way to win and, when it comes to the playoffs, that will only get you so far.

    Look at the Pens from a few years ago: If you wanted to play tough, they had Ruutu and Laraque….if you wanted to play skill, they have Crosby, Malkin and co…

    Add in there an excellent coach, solid goaltending and special teams, and the Pens could play, and beat you, at whatever game you threw at them.

    Not so for the JM-Habs. Score first, get excellent goaltending, and shutdown the opposition.

    That, to me, is not a system that can bring home a Cup. Too many variable have to go right to win. And, imo, in the playoffs, you need to be able to win by any means necessary.

  • http://www.habswatch.com HabsWatch

    Good stuff Kyle!

    Only things I’d add is the Habs winning 72.7% of the time when scoring first is actually pretty average for a team that made the playoffs. The NHL average among playoff-bound teams scoring first this season was 71.6%.

    The shocking number for me is the Habs record when they don’t score first. Winning 31.6% of their games when trailing is slightly below the NHL average of 31.9% but well below playoff-teams that came back 38.7% of the time. Testament to their lack of scoring in my honest opinion.

    Playoff-bound teams average defense ranked 10.3 in the NHL season year while the Habs come in with an offense ranked 15th out of 16. And of the 3 playoff teams that had a worse goal differential than the Canadiens, their goals per game average was 2.87, significantly higher than the Habs 2.60.

    Yet more proof that while solid defense is needed to win, offense is the difference maker so relying on suspect goaltending to carry through 4 rounds to compensate for a lack of offense is just wishful thinking.

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