Montreal Canadiens season preview: What to expect from the Flames versus the Canadiens

After dropping two in a row to the Toronto Maple Leafs earlier this week, the Calgary Flames will look to get back on track as they travel east to play the Montreal Canadiens in another two game series. This will be the first two of nine matchups between the two teams. It should be another good test for the Flames as the Canadiens currently sit second in the North Division. 

Last season the teams met two times with the Flames going 0-1-1 in the season series. The Canadiens outscored the Flames 6-3 in those two games. Last season continued a trend as the Flames haven’t beat the Canadiens since December 2017, and are 1-5 against them over the last three seasons. Both teams were busy in the off-season and both signed some big names in free agency so it should be an exciting season series between the two teams this year. 

Flames VS Canadiens Game Days

LocationDateTime (Mountain)
MontrealJanuary 285:00pm
MontrealJanuary 305:00pm
CalgaryMarch 117:00pm
CalgaryMarch 135:00pm
MontrealApril 145:00pm
MontrealApril 165:00pm
CalgaryApril 227:00pm
CalgaryApril 245:00pm
CalgaryApril 268:00pm

With the division realignment and shortened schedule, the Flames will see a lot more of the Canadiens than in a normal year as they typically only meet twice a year, once in each city. This year however they will meet nine times with five in Calgary and four in Montreal. They’ll face off in three two games series’ and one three game series in April which could have huge playoff implications. 

Both teams bowed out in the first round of the playoffs last season with both losing in six games. Both teams are expected to compete for first spot in the division, and every game between the two should be a tight affair. Meetings between the two teams have typically been very tight over the last couple years with five of the six being one goal games, and there is no reason to suggest things will be different this year.

The Canadiens Roster

This is what the Canadiens lineup looked like in practice this week as they waited to host the Flames in their home opener tonight. Joel Armia has been out of the lineup with a concussion since last week, with Flames arch rival Corey Perry taking his spot in the lineup. 

Based on these lines, it would appear that former Flames Paul Byron and Brett Kulak will be in the lineup, while former member of the 3M line, Michael Frolik will be sitting on the sidelines. Byron was claimed off of waivers from Calgary in 2015, while Kulak was traded as part of a minor deal to the Habs in 2018. Frolik signed with the team in the off-season. Frolik was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for a fourth round pick just over a year ago. He signed with the Habs during the off-season.

Goalies

The Canadiens have one of the better goaltending duos in the division after picking up Jake Allen to back-up Carey Price in the off-season. As mentioned above Price will likely be in net tonight. He has long been considered one of the best goalies in the league, however his play in the regular season has fallen off the last couple years. Regardless he’s still very capable of stealing a game for his team on any given night, so the Flames certainly won’t have it easy.  

Below using visuals from hockeyviz.com, we can compare Jacob Markstrom and Price’s performances from last season.

There’s no doubt that Markstrom was much better than Price last year as he outperformed him in most metrics. Price had an okay .909 save percentage last year and a 2.79 GAA. Markstrom bested him in both categories with a .918 save percentage and 2.75 GAA. 

Markstrom allowed less goals than expected on every type of shot last season except backhands in which his actual was equal to the expected. Price on the other hand had mixed results across the board as he allowed more goals than expected on wrist/snap shots, but allowed slightly less on both slapshots and tips/deflections. Interestingly enough his backhand expected versus actual was essentially identical to Markstrom’s. 

This year Price has once again gotten off to a rough start as he holds a brutal .893 save percentage and 3.14 GAA in four games. His current numbers may not show it but Markstrom has gotten off to a great start this season and given the Flames a chance to win every night. He’s been pretty unlucky along the way as almost half of the goals he’s allowed have been awkward deflections or bounces. He holds a .911 save percentage and 2.62 GAA so far in five games. 

On paper the Flames certainly have the goaltending advantage in this series however you never know when vintage Carey Price will show up so the Flames shouldn’t expect to have it easy against him.

Defense

The bracketed numbers indicate the team’s league wide rank in a given category. All data is at 5v5, score/venue adjusted, courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.

TeamxGAGACAHDCA
CGY130.7 (18)146.7 (23)3250.7 (21)562.4 (9)
MTL120.85 (9)141.68 (16)3028.53 (11)573.02 (13)

The Canadiens and Flames are pretty evenly matched on defence on paper although Montreal did have the better year defensively last season. Despite finishing the regular season in 24th place last year, the Canadiens ranked in the upper half of the league in most defensive categories. Despite the idea that the Canadiens rely on Price, it was actually the opposite last year as they were very sound defensively which helped make up for Price’s lackluster play. 

In the off-season Montreal added Joel Edmundson, as well as highly touted prospect Alexander Romanov who made the jump to the NHL this year. Edmundson has been an average defender for most of his career and that trend has continued this season as he has struggled so far. He’s the only regular Montreal defender with a CF% below 50 through the team’s first six games.  

The rest of their defense has been borderline elite to start the season though, especially Romanov and former Flame Brett Kulak. Romanov currently holds a CF% of 63.10, while Kulak sits at 61.04%. Both totals would top the Flames defence. As a team Montreal currently sits seventh in the league for xGA (8.2), CA (226), and HDCA (35). They have had a great start to the year and will be very tough to score against.  

Despite being rather poor on defence last year, ranking in the bottom half of the league in most categories, the Flames have seen great early returns from their new defenders. After a huge overhaul on defence in the off-season, Chris Tanev, Nikita Nesterov, and Juuso Valimaki were added to the Flames starting lineup. The early numbers have been great as the trio currently sit second, third and fourth respectively among Flames’ defenders for CF% and xGF%.

The new pairing of Tanev and Noah Hanifin in particular have been great so far, holding a GF% of 100 as they haven’t surrendered a single goal at 5v5 yet. It’s actually been the Flames top pairing of Mark Giordano and Rasmus Andersson that have struggled the most so far. They are the only Flames defenders with a CF% under 50, and an xGA over three. 

As a team the Flames have been very good on defense though, having very similar results to the Canadiens. They sit seventh for xGA (8.04), fifth for CA (178.35), and eleventh for HDCA (38). Despite their record they have played some very solid defence all season aside from a couple periods and deserved much better in their series with the Leafs. It’s obviously still very early but if the top pairing can start to figure it out which I’m sure they will, the Flames could have one of the best defence units in the league.

Forwards

The Canadiens may not have any star players up front, however they have one of the deepest forward groups not just in the North Division but in the entire league.

TeamxGFGFCFHDCFSH%
CGY132.1 (8)132.8 (20)3250.8 (6)586.3 (17)7.69 (22)
MTL142.97 (2)146.45 (14)3646.85 (1)683.89 (2)7.47 (26)

The story on offense was very similar for both teams last year. Both generated shots and chances at an impressive rate, but just couldn’t buy a goal and dealt with some bad luck. Both teams added some players up front in the off-season in hopes of changing their luck this year. 

People don’t realize just how great Montreal is at even strength and they really don’t get the credit they deserve. The Canadiens were dominate possession wise last season, finishing top two in xGF, CF, and HDCF. Only the Vegas Golden Knights had a better xGF and HDCF than them. Montreal’s problem has always been their lack of elite scoring talent and finishers, showcased by their 7.47 shooting percentage which was bottom five in the league.  

In the off-season they went out and added Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson to help with their scoring issues and six games into the season it has paid off big time. Toffoli leads the Canadiens in goals with five and points with eight. Anderson on the other hand is tied for second on the team in goals with three.

Toffoli also leads the entire league in xGF% right now at 74.69, while centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi sits fourth. That duo is actually skating on the Canadiens third line right now, showing just how deep they are at forward. They have depth up and down their forward group in every position and can create some very tough matchups for opposing teams. 

The Canadiens forward group as a whole has been dominant to start the year. Via MoneyPuck.com, their top two lines rank second and seventh in the league for xGF% among lines with at least 55 minutes together. As a team they sit second for xGF% (59.89) second for CF% (59.15), and fifth for HDCF% (63.24). They also lead the league in SH% so far at 11.94, a big improvement over last season. They’re second in the league for goals at 5v5 with 18, trailing only the Canucks who have played two more games. 

Though not as impressive as the Canadiens, the Flames have seen some decent results so far this year. They sit tenth in the league for xGF% (52.59) ninth for CF% (53.24), and sixteenth for HDCF% (48.77). Unfortunately they have once again struggled to convert on their chances as they hold a 6.44 shooting percentage, good for seventh last in the league.

Perhaps the best news so far this season for the Flames has been the return to form of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. After having some rough seasons last year, the two Flames stars have bounced back this season and look like their 2018-19 versions. The duo currently sits tied for first on the team in points with seven. Funny enough, Gaudreau leads the team in goals with four, while Monahan leads the team in assists. 

Another positive sign for the Flames so far has been the newly formed duo of Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm. The duo currently sits second and third in the league for CF% and have been dominate at even strength to start the year. After Dillon Dube went down with an injury, Andrew Mangiapane was promoted to their line and hasn’t looked out of place at allTkachuk is currently second in the league for xGF%, while Mangiapane is sixth, and Lindholm is ninth. The experiment of moving Lindholm to centre has worked out great for the team so far and has given them two very good forward lines to rely on. 

Unfortunately, the bottom six has been very poor so far this season, especially the fourth line. Milan Lucic, Joakim Nordstrom and Sam Bennett have all struggled to start the year and have been liabilities on the ice. Nordstrom is currently third last in the league among forwards with at least 25 minutes TOI for xGF%.

It’s made it even more evident just how much the Flames miss Dillon Dube, as having him back as gets Nordstrom out of the lineup and creates much better depth on the wing in the bottom six. Dube actually leads the entire league in CF% right now among forwards with at least 25 minutes TOI. We will have to wait and see if he suits up tonight as he has been day-to-day since leaving the game against Vancouver on the 18th

What To Expect

These two teams are very evenly matched on paper and the season series should be competitive and close throughout the year. Both teams have been great on defense and possession wise so far this season so the Flames should expect some very tight games against the Canadiens this season. 

The Canadiens certainly hold the upper hand when it comes to depth at forward, so it could create some tough matchups for the Flames on the road. Luckily, they have been getting some great play from their second and third pairs so hopefully they are up to the task. 

In such a tight season series between two evenly matched teams, goaltending could be the difference which bodes well for the Flames as Price has struggled once again this year and Markstrom has picked up where he left off last season. 

Just like the previous two games against the Maple Leafs, I would expect the first two games against the Canadiens to be very close and competitive. It should be a great measuring stick for the Flames to see where they sit in the North Division. 

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