Pat Hickey: Stats don't tell the whole story about Canadiens' progress

“You have to look at all the one-goal games we’ve played,” says Martin St. Louis, now already the ninth-longest serving NHL coach.

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As Martin St. Louis wrapped up his post-practice media scrum Monday in Nashville, I asked him how it felt to be the 10th longest-tenured coach in the NHL after a little more than two years on the job.

“I know, it’s weird,” replied St. Louis. “There’s not a lot of security in this job.”

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By the end of the day, St. Louis moved up to ninth in terms of seniority when the New Jersey Devils made Lindy Ruff the seventh coach to be fired this season.

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St. Louis has some security because he and the Canadiens’ brain trust headed by Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes have committed to a rebuild and the usual yardsticks — wins and losses — aren’t as important as establishing a culture that emphasizes playing the right way.

The coach said he doesn’t have a timetable on when the Canadiens will return to the playoffs. They are on track to miss the post-season for the third consecutive year, but there’s a belief that the team is headed in the right direction even if the usual yardsticks might suggest otherwise.

“Our numbers are about the same as last season, but you have to look at all the one-goal games we’ve played,” St Louis said.

The Canadiens had 58 points after 62 games. That’s two fewer than last season at the same stage, but nearly two-thirds of this season’s games were decided by one goal.

Montreal won 19 of those games and lost 21. The Canadiens are 4-6 in shootouts, 6-5 in overtime and 6-9 in other one-goal games. They are 3-1 in one-goal games that finished with a two-goal margin after an empty-net goal.

Staying competitive in each game is important because it prevents a defeatist attitude taking hold.

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The Canadiens have shown a small improvement in goals for and against but still rank near the bottom of the league, and the special teams are in the bottom third. The most significant improvement has been in faceoff percentage, where the Canadiens have gone from 25th to eighth. At one point, the Canadiens ranked third in faceoffs, but there was a dropoff after Sean Monahan was traded.

Nick Suzuki has erased any doubts about whether he’s a first-line centre and his production is more impressive because, in the absence of Kirby Dach, Christian Dvorak and Monahan, it’s easier for defences to key on the top line.

Juraj Slafkovsky is justifying his selection as the No. 1 overall pick and any concern about Cole Caufield’s drop in goal production is offset by the improvement in his overall game.

The Canadiens are the second youngest team in the NHL and the young defence corps — which will get even younger with the arrival of David Reinbacher and Lane Hutson — has shown steady improvement.

A little more firepower and more consistent goaltending should be the team’s priority going forward.

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PWHL Montreal players celebrate on ice
Montreal celebrates after a PWHL hockey game against New York on Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in Bridgeport, Conn. Photo by Frank Franklin II /AP

PWHL offers incentive: Montreal went into Friday in first place in the Professional Women’s Hockey League and there’s incentive to stay there. The PWHL unveiled its playoff format and the team that finishes first can choose to play either the third or fourth-place finisher in the best-of-five semifinal.

Montreal is expecting another sellout crowd at Place Bell Sunday when it plays Ottawa (4 p.m., Sportsnet, I’d be surprised if one of the playoff games doesn’t end up in the Bell Centre, giving Montreal fans a chance to break the women’s attendance record of 19,185 spectators set at the Montreal-Toronto game last month at Scotiabank Arena.

Concordia Stingers women's hockey head coach Julie Chu speaks to her players on the ice during practice
Concordia Stingers head coach Julie Chu speaks to her players during morning practice on Thursday March 7, 2024. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

The other women: Montreal’s PWHL entry isn’t the only winning women’s team in Montreal.

The Concordia Stingers, coached by former U.S. Olympian Julie Chu and Hockey Hall of Famer Caroline Ouellette, will be the top seed in the USports national championships in Saskatoon next weekend.

The Stingers went undefeated in 25 regular-season games before losing the first game of a best-of-three RSEQ semifinal against Ottawa. They won the next two games and beat the Montreal Carabins in the final. After splitting the first two games, the Stingers crushed the Carabins 10-4 in the deciding game.

UQTR Patriotes and the McGill Redbirds will represent Quebec in the USports men’s championships next weekend in Toronto.

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