Periodic musings from the desk of...
Pondering some odd numbers in Montreal, NY and NJ
Posted: Monday November 5, 2007 11:53AM; Updated: Monday November 5, 2007 11:54AM
In a twisted example of NHL math, take away 19 goals from five players and you are left with No. 1.
If you had to pick from a laundry list of the most surprising stories of the first month of the season -- the Columbus Blue Jackets' strong start and the competitiveness of the Central Division, the slow start by the New York Rangers -- there might be nothing odder than the Montreal Canadiens' top-rated power play.
This shouldn't compute. When Sheldon Souray signed as a free agent with the Edmonton Oilers last summer, he took his Hammer of Thor slapshot and the 19 power play goals -- a record for NHL defensemen -- with him. Souray's shot, which put as much fear into the forwards who were expected to go to the front of the net for a deflection as it did into goalies, was a freak of nature. Doug Jarvis, the Montreal assistant coach in charge of the power play, put it to excellent use. The Canadiens might work the puck around a little, but everybody in the arena knew it was going to end up back at the point and the maestro would wind up and hammer it. Montreal's power play, among the top ranked in the league until it slipped late in the season, was basically The Anvil Chorus.
Jarvis, once a renowned defensive center, has come up not only with something different but something better -- at least so far. Montreal is converting almost one-third of its opportunities, a league-leading number that is a nod to the Canadiens' power play of the mid-1950s that was so absurdly good the NHL had to change the rule that obliged the penalized player to serve the full two minutes.
(Note to NHL hockey operation vice-president Colin Campbell: Bring the rule back. Maybe it fractionally improves scoring, which is below an average of six goals per game. Maybe it further discourages penalties and increases the amount of five-on-five play, worth considering given the special-teams fests now on display many nights.)
Jarvis abandoned the idea of a power-play unit, as such, and decided to go with the regular lines when the Canadiens have a man-advantage. Saku Koivu, Christopher Higgins and Michael Ryder (dropped to the fourth line in the third period against Toronto last Saturday) get the first crack at it while Tomas Plekanec, Alexei Kovalev and Guillaume Latrendresse take the second minute. Mark Streit, the defenseman-turned-forward-turned-defenseman, has essentially taken over Souray's role on the point with the first group. He doesn't have goalies ducking for cover, but his shot is strong enough that penalty-killing forwards have to move out to block it or force him to change the angle.
By loosening the penalty-killing box, Canadiens forwards have more to operate down low. "They're moving the puck a lot better than they were last year," one NHL pro scout said. "They got too dependent on Souray. Now they're throwing the puck around better, moving into spaces, getting some two-on-ones down low. The key is Koivu. I can't remember him starting a season so strong, with so much confidence. His passes are really sharp. Last year his passes were too hard sometimes, and guy's couldn't handle it. He's playing much better now."