Canadiens need power-play boost in tight games

MONTREAL -- Goalie Carey Price whipped around in skates and a track suit during Montreal’s optional practice Thursday, a player’s stick in hand, and rifled a shot in the vacant net.

Maybe the Canadiens should put him on the power play?

We jest, of course. After all, the front-runner for the Hart and Vezina trophies can’t do everything, right?

But the power play is indeed the topic du jour. The Montreal Canadiens are in position to wrap up a first-round playoff series over the Ottawa Senators in Game 5 on Friday night -- despite not having a power play that’s showing any signs of life. As in, one goal in 16 power-play chances.

The Canadiens might eliminate the Senators despite that, but can they go on a deep run without a consistent power play?

Actually, recent history suggests that perhaps the power play isn’t all that important when it comes to playoff success.

Here’s a look at three recent Stanley Cup champions and where each ranked out of 16 playoff teams:

  • The 2013 Chicago Blackhawks were 13th on the power play with a 11.4 percent success rate;

  • The 2012 Los Angeles Kings were 12th at just 12.8 percent;

  • And the 2011 Boston Bruins were 14th at 11.4 percent.

  • "Regular-season numbers, good or bad, don't hold a lot of value at playoff time unless there is a big change in personnel through injury or trade deadline acquisitions such as the [Marian] Gaborik trade or the [Jeff] Carter trade or the [Slava] Voynovrecall at the deadline,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter told ESPN.com Thursday.

    Sutter, whose Kings had a good power play in last year’s championship run, explained implementation at key times is what’s important.

    "Generally the further the rounds go, the fewer the penalties, less opportunities, so [teams] need better execution," Sutter said. "Scoring a big goal or changing momentum are much more important than the percentages. Every series should start at zeroes because your opponent changes. The 2012 Cup team scored big power-play goals without high percentages. In fact, in the Cup-winning game, I think we scored three on the five-minute power play, which won the game.

    "We are seeing again in these early rounds the importance of staying out of the box because of the toll it takes on not being able to utilize the bench, especially with long OTs," Sutter added.

    On the flip side, those same championship teams excelled at the penalty kill:

  • The 2013 Blackhawks were third on the penalty kill at a 90.7 percent kill rate;

  • The 2012 Kings were tied for first at 92.1 percent;

  • The 2011 Bruins were sixth at 84.4 percent.

  • In other words, the PK trumps the PP at this time of year.

    "You see a big difference," Bruins center Patrice Bergeron told ESPN.com Thursday. "The desperation in which guys throw themselves in front of pucks, the aggressiveness and intensity is higher. Plus, the fact that you play against the same players every game in a series, that makes a difference as well.

    "You get to know tendencies and what the PP is trying to do."

    Playing the same team for a two-week period becomes an advantage for the penalty-killing team.

    "When you’re playing a team in a series, you’re always making adjustments specifically to that team,” Bruins coach Claude Julien told ESPN.com Thursday. “Sometimes you see a team, and they’ve had a couple of chances with certain plays, and now you’re able to counter that and make sure you take those away."

    Unfortunately, Montreal isn’t excelling at penalty killing, either. So far, the Canadiens are ranked 13th out of the 16 playoff teams with a penalty-kill percentage of 75.

    In 2013, when the Bruins swept the Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals, Boston shut down Pittsburgh’s power play. No goals were scored in 15 chances. The key was more preparation.

    "You watch that team’s scoring chances from a whole season, and [see] where most of them come from," Julien said. "You know where the most dangerous areas are. In the regular season, you don’t have the chance to break down a whole year’s worth of plays like that. But when you’re getting ready for a series, you have time to do that.

    "For example, we would see things like maybe 60 percent of a team’s goals came from the low plays, goal line to whatever, and then another team would get a lot of goals from plays which start from shots from the point. There’s a lot more that goes into your pre-scout of a playoff series."

    The Canadiens could really use the power play now. All four games in this series have been decided by one goal.

    "It’s really tough with the close games we play to not be able to contribute on the power play. It is tough,” Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk, whose offensive creativity makes him a fixture on the power play, said. "Hopefully, if we get any calls, we try to build that momentum and get a goal [on the PP]."

    The key, as Sutter noted earlier, is to ensure your power play can still be a momentum changer when it matters.

    Brendan Gallagher, who has averaged the second-most power-play minutes among Habs forwards in the playoffs, brings it back to the most basic fact.

    "The one thing you can always do a better job of is out-battling your opponent,” he said. "I mean, you’ve got the extra guy, but you still got to have that five-on-five mentality.

    "It’s just a matter of execution. We understand what we have to do. We just didn’t do a very good job of it. If we’re willing to outwork our opponent, we feel like we’re giving ourselves better chances."

    Canadiens coach Michel Therrien wants to see better puck movement and overall just better execution on the power play.

    Therrien noted that although veteran Sergei Gonchar hasn’t been part of the lineup, the longtime power-play stud has taken part in power-play meetings.

    The Senators’ penalty kill aggressively takes time and space away from P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov at the Montreal point. It’s the right move, as Subban and his cannon shot are the most dangerous piece of the Habs' arsenal.

    But it’s an opportunity to make Ottawa pay for the maneuver with the extra space Montreal gets down low. The Senators’ penalty-kill unit hasn’t needed to adjust because the Canadiens aren’t taking advantage of the low opening to score.

    "Yeah, I think that’s something we’ll look at,” Gallagher said. "You look at how they’re playing Marky and Subby up top, they’re not going to have a lot of space, even when they get the puck, not only for a shot but even for a pass, they’re right in their face.

    "We definitely have to move it around, use the lower half of the ice, use those plays a little more, and hopefully find some seams. And if we start to do that, maybe those guys up top will open up."

    Recent playoffs have shown the power play doesn’t need to be prolific, but it does have to produce at key times. The Canadiens need that to materialize. Now.