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Three ways the Canucks can expose Montreal...and five areas where the Habs are superior

The Canucks are under pressure to emerge victorious in this three game series after a slow start to the season.

NHL: DEC 17 Canadiens at Canucks
Montreal Canadiens Left Wing Tomas Tatar (90) celebrates scoring a goal against the Vancouver Canucks during their NHL game at Rogers Arena on December 17, 2019 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Photo by Devin Manky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Earlier in this Canucks losing streak, Nucks Misconduct podcasters Kyle Bhawan and Nick Bondi debated on whether it’s time to hit the panic button.

It’s probably a bit early for that...but you can slam that panic button if the Canucks continue to flounder against the best team in the Canadian Division.

Through the first few games of the season, you can see a number of areas where the Canadiens are better than the Canucks. That being said, there is definitely hope for the Canucks to get back on track during this three-game series.

Here’s a look at where Montreal is excelling right now compared to the Canucks, along with three ways they can be exposed.

1) Ability to roll four lines

This is something that Claude Julien hasn’t been afraid to do during the Habs first three games of the season. The top three lines in particular are all rocking an expected goals-for percentage above 55%.

Jonathan Drouin — Nick Suzuki — Josh Anderson (xGF: 73.9%)

Tomas Tatar — Phillip Danault — Brendan Gallagher (xGF: 65%)

Tyler Toffoli — Jesperi Kotkaniemi — Joel Armia (xGF: 57.9%)

The fourth line of Paul Byron, Jake Evans and Artturi Lekhonen hasn’t been as effective, but they’re still trusted, with Evans being the only forward on the roster to average less than 12 minutes of ice time.

In comparison, the Canucks have four forwards (Adam Gaudette, Antoine Roussel, Jake Virtanen and Zack MacEwen) who are averaging less than 12 minutes. The Jay Beagle, Brandon Sutter and Tyler Motte unit have racked up the minutes because of the Canucks ridiculous amount of time spent shorthanded so far this season, but they aren’t necessarily a go-to option at even-strength.

2) Less permissive than the Canucks

Despite playing against teams with some dangerous offensive weapons in the Oilers and Leafs, Montreal isn’t allowing many shots to get to the net. Although they’ve allowed the 10th-most shot attempts against, they aren’t allowing many good chances to get through to their goaltenders.

Here’s how they compare to the Canucks in a couple of even-strength categories.

Shots against per-60: Montreal: 25 (7th), Vancouver: 35.76 (28th)

High-Danger shot attempts against per-60: Montreal: 7.46 (12th), Vancouver: 13.1 (28th)

3) Superior special teams

On the surface, Montreal’s special teams play looks strong early.

They’re clicking at 40% on the power play, and their penalty kill is at 85.7%.

The Canucks so far are 0-15 on the power play, and are killing only two-thirds of their penalties at 66.7%.

4) World-class goaltending

After allowing five goals to the Maple Leafs in their season opener, both Carey Price and Jake Allen took turns stonewalling the Oilers.

Each goaltender allowed one goal against in consecutive wins in Alberta. As a tandem, they have the fifth-best even-strength save percentage.

It’s hard to pin any of the Canucks losses on Braden Holtby or Thatcher Demko, considering how permissive Vancouver’s defence has been, and considering how many times they’ve been shorthanded. That being said, the Canucks have allowed three goals or more in each of their four games this season.

5) Better rookie defenceman

One similarity between these two teams is that they both employ a rookie defenceman.

That’s about where the similarities end, however.

Montreal Canadiens v Edmonton Oilers
Jake Evans #71, Alexander Romanov #27 and Brett Kulak #77 of the Montreal Canadiens celebrate a goal against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place on January 18, 2021 in Edmonton, Canada.
Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

Alexander Romanov has looked sharp during his first three games in the rouge, bleu, et blanc (pardon my French). He leads all Habs with a shot-attempt differential of 56.9%. Julien also seems to trust him, as he’s averaging more than 18 minutes per game.

Olli Juolevi, on the other hand, has looked solid in very limited minutes. Juolevi and Tyler Myers as a pair have a shot-attempt differential of 62.3%.

However, Juolevi has barely played, averaging a shade over 10 minutes per game. He played a team-low 7:55 in the Canucks loss to Calgary on Monday.

The selection of Romanov during the 2018 NHL Draft could be one that’s mulled over in Vancouver for the foreseeable future. Romanov was drafted one spot after Jett Woo in 2018.

Three areas where the Canucks can expose the Canadiens

1) On the power play

Even though Montreal has killed off 87.5% of the penalties this season, the chart below doesn’t look good.

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That big brown blob in front of the net is an issue for the Canadiens. That should have power-play phenom Bo Horvat smelling blood entering this match-up.

Despite not scoring, the Canucks power play is generating more chances than almost every other unit in the league. It’s only a matter of time until they score, especially with J.T. Miller back in the line-up.

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2) In the face-off circle

The Habs are rostering three young centremen in Suzuki, Kotkaniemi and Evans. All three of those players have a face-off percentage below 42% early in the season. Danault is the only regular centre that’s above 50% (54.2%).

With Miller, Horvat and Beagle taking the majority of face-offs, the Canucks were one of the best face-off teams in the year last season. Even Gaudette looks improved in the dot this season, nearly breaking even through four games (13 face-offs won, 14 lost).

It’s unlikely that the Canucks will be able to successfully cycle the puck against the Canadiens and their staunch defence. One way to generate offence at even-strength, however, would be to win offensive zone face-offs, throw pucks at the net, and aim for redirections.

3) Attacking in transition off the rush

Another way to expose Montreal’s defence would be to attack them off the rush.

While the Habs are surrendering a barrage of chances short-handed, they aren’t quite as permissive at 5-5.

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So far this season, Montreal is making life easy for their goaltenders.

The Canadiens are good in their own end, but if there’s one area where the Canucks excelled at last season, it was from scoring goals off the rush.

Montreal’s top four on defence (Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Joel Edmunson and Ben Chiarot) aren’t incredibly fleet of foot. If the Canucks can create turnovers in their own zone (which has been an issue) there should be opportunities for their speedy forwards to get up the ice quickly for off the rush chances.