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Price, top line help send Canadiens to playoffs

by Arpon Basu

On paper, the Montreal Canadiens have no business being where they are, with an invitation to the Stanley Cup Playoffs already in hand with 11 days remaining in the NHL regular season.

The Canadiens have a negative goal differential at 5-on-5, their possession numbers as a team are in the bottom half of the League, their power play is in the middle of the pack, they have yet to find consistent pairings on defense and they give up far too many shots on goal.

Yet here they sit, staring at a likely first-round matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning and with a comfortable lead on the teams fighting to grab the two Eastern Conference wild-card spots.

How can that be, Michel Therrien?

"We’re a group that works hard," the Canadiens coach said Tuesday after his team clinched its spot despite losing 3-1 to the Lightning. "Those guys work hard. They play within a structure."

Therrien then paused, thinking about his answer before hitting the nail squarely on its head.

"Obviously with a goaltender like Carey Price," Therrien said, "it's always a big plus."

Price is indeed the primary reason the Canadiens are where they are, with Lightning coach Jon Cooper calling him probably "the premiere goalie in the League" prior to the game Tuesday.

While Price is not the lone explanation for why the Canadiens made the playoffs, he leads the list of five reasons why that came to pass.

1. An elite goalie

Carey Price
Goalie - MTL
RECORD: 32-19-5
GAA: 2.36 | SVP: 0.925
If anyone needed proof of just how important Price is to the Canadiens, it came when he was injured at the 2014 Sochi Olympics while backstopping Canada to the gold medal.

Any team that loses its starting goalie will struggle, but in the eight games Price missed with a lower-body injury he aggravated at the Olympics, the Canadiens did not win a single game in regulation in going 3-4-1. Montreal allowed 28 goals in those eight games, an average of 3.5 per game.

Price's absence showed to what extent he is able to mask a lot of the Canadiens' deficiencies. Since his return, Montreal has won eight of 10 games and allowed 22 goals in that span, with Price showing his value at the most critical times to give his team a chance to win.

A perfect example came Tuesday against the Lightning, when Price made a number of highlight-reel stops to keep the game tied before allowing the game-winning goal to Tyler Johnson on a shorthanded breakaway at 12:41 of the third period.

"I believe we didn't have a good game," Therrien said, "but Carey Price gave us a chance to stick in the game."

It's a statement that's been true on countless occasions this season.

2. A meaningless goal that meant a lot

When Lars Eller jumped on a Robin Lehner rebound to score at 16:38 of the third period of a game against the Ottawa Senators on March 15, it snapped a 24-game goal drought for the struggling Canadiens forward.

He reacted as if his cat had just died.

The goal cut the Senators' lead in the game to 4-2, and Eller saw no reason to celebrate.

"It was nice to score, but there were other things that happened throughout that game," Eller said. "I was on for four goals [against]. At that point, making it 4-2 with a couple of minutes to go, a win or even a tie still seemed really far away. So I didn't feel like there was a lot to be happy about.

"I was still minus-3 and it didn't look like we were going to win or even tie it, so it didn't seem natural to be overjoyed at that point."

As it turns out, that goal was the start of a historic comeback, one where David Desharnais scored the tying goal with 0.3 seconds to play in regulation and Francis Bouillon scored the winner at 1:26 of overtime.

"What I'm hoping for," Therrien said after the game, "is that can change a season, those big games like that."

It did.

A loss to the Senators that night would have been Montreal's fourth in a row in regulation, but instead it turned into the start of a run of eight wins in nine games before losing to the Lightning on Tuesday.

That hot stretch pushed the Canadiens past the pack of teams battling for the wild card into one of the guaranteed playoff spots in the Atlantic Division, and it began thanks to what appeared to be a meaningless goal by Eller.

"It felt good and it also felt good to help the team start that turnaround," Eller said. "The way it ended, that was just amazing."

3. Winning half of the special teams battle

The Canadiens traditionally have had one of the NHL's top power plays, finishing top-10 in the League in power-play percentage in six of the previous eight seasons, including fifth last season.

The Canadiens were 16th this season prior to games Wednesday with a 17.9-percent success rate, but the Montreal power play has been in a rut in the past 35 games, converting at a 14.0-percent clip.

Montreal's inefficiency on the power play has been compensated by a tremendous penalty kill, one that ranks third in the NHL at 85.7 percent.

A big part of that is Price. His .804 save percentage on opposing power plays last season was the worst in the NHL among starting goaltenders, but Price has improved that number to .902 this season, second among NHL goalies who have faced at least 200 shots shorthanded.

But the Canadiens also have Tomas Plekanec, one of the League's top penalty-killing forwards, and a defense corps that blocks shots and clears rebounds.

It's allowed the Canadiens to be a positive on the special-teams ledger with a combined percentage above 100.

4. A potent top line

Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin pulled off what may have been the coup of the NHL Trade Deadline when he acquired forward Thomas Vanek from the New York Islanders in exchange for prospect Sebastian Collberg and a 2014 second-round draft pick.

Therrien put Vanek at right wing, a position he hardly has played as a professional, with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty during the third period of that March 15 comeback against the Senators.

To that point Vanek had one assist in four games with the Canadiens. Since then he has six goals and four assists in nine games.

The line combined in those nine games has 14 goals and 15 assists, giving Montreal's opponents something to worry about and creating a trickle-down effect that allows the Canadiens' other forward lines to face lesser competition.

"We were definitely a strong team, but I think we lacked some offensive punch at certain times," Pacioretty said. "Before that Ottawa game we had been struggling to score. Bringing a guy like him, he brings so much offense. It doesn't only affect the people who are playing with him like myself. I think it causes other teams to focus on him a little bit more and it might help out the other lines as well. Adding an offensive guy like that, I think it helps out everyone on the team."

5. Dynamic duo on defense

Every general manager in the NHL talks about the need to add puck-moving defensemen, a rare, coveted commodity.

P.K. Subban
Defense - MTL
GOALS: 10 | ASST: 43 | PTS: 53
SOG: 199 | +/-: 0
The Canadiens have two of the best in the League on the same team.

Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban have the ability to take control of games, each in his own way.

Markov can slow the game down to his speed, using his vision and guile to make the right pass more often than not and possessing an uncanny ability to hold the puck in at the opposing blue line, extending shifts in the offensive zone.

Subban can electrify a crowd with his stickhandling and is perhaps the best defenseman in the League at breaking a team's forecheck, using his exceptional skating ability to beat the first man in and send the Canadiens the other way.

Subban was fourth in the NHL in scoring among defensemen with 53 points prior to games Wednesday and Markov was tied for 15th with 42 points. No other Eastern Conference team had two defensemen in the top-20, and the only other teams in the League were the Chicago Blackhawks (Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook) and St. Louis Blues (Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk), two of the top teams in the NHL.

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