Number cruncher: Secret weapons

Monday, 14.04.2014 / 3:14 PM canadiens.com

MONTREAL – With a first-round playoff date against the Lightning right around the corner, we look into the contributions of three forwards who could come up huge in the clutch.

There will be no shortage of high-profile matchups in the 2013-14 first round playoff series between the Montreal Canadiens and the Tampa Bay Lightning. With both teams’ top two lines fairly even in terms of talent and production, the seven-game series will most likely hinge on the contributions of their oft-underestimated supporting cast. Here are three unsung heroes who can do some serious damage against the Lightning.

Brian Gionta: establishing matchups

Aside from frequent penalty kill partner Tomas Plekanec, no other Canadiens forward plays as many tough minutes against strong competition as captain Brian Gionta skilfully does. Formerly a 48-goal scorer with the Devils, the 35 year-old from Rochester has matured into one of the best in the league at neutralizing opposing scorers. Now skating with Lars Eller rather than Plekanec as his centerman, Gionta gives coach Michel Therrien a second potent two-way option at even strength.

The additional flexibility means that, if necessary, the Habs coaching staff can assign the Czech to blanket Stamkos while delegating Gionta’s line to shut down the Filppula-Callahan unit. All this would set the stage for the high-octane trio of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Thomas Vanek to do its thing against Tampa’s bottom-six forwards.

Daniel Briere: pinch hitter

As a free agent in the summer of 2013, Briere was brought into the team for his offensive prowess. Over the course of the regular season, the Gatineau, QC native has shown off his offensive instincts in spots, scoring at a rate comparable to that of Johan Franzen, Ales Hemsky and Chris Stewart at five-on-five. More importantly, the veteran playmaker is known for his playoff exploits, as he has amassed an impressive 109 points in 108 career postseason games. Having skated with nearly every regular forward on the Canadiens roster, Briere can be slotted into any forward line to give the unit an injection of speed and skill.

When Briere cannot score himself, he helps his teammates do so by proxy. One underrated asset he brings to the table is a proven ability to draw penalties – Briere routinely goads opponents into fouling him with great puck control along the boards and has finished with a positive penalty differential (drawing more minor infractions than he commits) in the past three seasons. In his last trip to the playoffs in 2012 with the Flyers, he managed to draw seven minor penalties in 11 games while taking only two himself.

Lars Eller: driving the play

After scoring five goals in the first five games of the season, Eller has not been able to get his name on the scoreboard with the same regularity. The Dane’s offensive struggles have nothing to do with his skill level; he simply hasn’t been getting the right bounces. His -15 plus-minus rating, in particular, has less to do with poor play than poor luck. Indeed, his PDO rating (on-ice shooting percentage + on ice save percentage, an approximation of a player’s “puck luck” in a given year) is only 968, the lowest score on the Canadiens and the 14th lowest among all NHLers taking part in 70 games or more this season. Considering that all players’ PDO tends to regress heavily toward 1000 over time, there are reasons to believe that good things will soon be happening to the 24 year-old.

Overlooking the statistical aberration, Eller has actually been one of the best of his team at winning possession and moving the puck down the ice. Among Habs forwards, only Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher have done better in that part of the game, as measured by their shot attempt differentials (nicknamed Corsi in advanced stats parlance). As it stands, the fourth-year Hab can be identified as a breakout candidate for this year’s playoffs.

Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com

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