What Does A Quick Start Mean For The Canadiens? Absolutely Everything.

What does a first goal mean within a game? What does it mean within a playoff series? What does it mean for a team whose Achilles Heel is that first goal?

Going up against the Boston Bruins, all hockey pundits agree that it's crucial for the Montreal Canadiens to steer the gameplay towards a skilled contest that gives them a chance of winning. It is also consensus that a rough and tumble game controlled by Boston is not in their best interests. With that, getting ahead on the scoreboard is clearly the top priority for the Habs.

But more than usual.

Anyone following the 2010-11 edition of the Canadiens fully understands how the team's results hinged on them scoring first and not getting behind early:

  • 9 shutouts against: tied a franchise record, 3rd most in NHL.
  • 17 losses by 3 or more goals: 6th most in NHL, only 1 other bottom-15 team in the playoffs.
  • 5 regulation losses by 1 goal: fewest in NHL (last even with their 8 OT/SO losses included).

The above clearly shows an all-or-nothing team that completely checked out when not in the game. But did that factor into the standings at all? Were more points handed out for a 1-goal loss than one by 4 goals? Did a 4-2 loss count more in the playoff seeding or tiebreakers than a 2-0 shutout? No, no difference. Perhaps it even offerred an opportunity for some players to rest up during those mail-it-in games. Perhaps it was a result of limping veterans licking their wounds and gunning for a stronger appearance the next night.

What does such a pattern mean for the playoff edition of the Habs? Everything.
Much is made of winning the first game of a playoff series, and rightfully so. But what about scoring the first goal of the series? Could that 1st goal set a tone for the next 4-7 games? Can an initial goal tell us anything about games that will be played only a week later and which will start fresh at 0-0? Looking at the last 25 years for the Habs, it sure appears so.

Historically for the Canadiens, that first series goal says a lot about the outcome of that series. The following statistics reflect the team’s playoff results since its Stanley Cup victory in 1985-86, including 39 individual series leading up to today:

  • When winning Game 1 of series: 14-4 (series won - series lost)
  • When losing Game 1 of series: 9-12
  • When scoring the 1st goal in series: 17-3
  • When allowing the 1st goal in series: 6-13

Powerful that a first goal scored or allowed in a single game of a long 7-game series polarizes the Canadiens series-record from 17-3 to 6-13. That is 77% of the time that the team scoring the series-opening goal went on to win the series (66% of Game 1 winners took the series). What turns that power into frightful certainty, is that most of those series were not with a Habs team as "fair weathered" as the current, and were with a group who hung in there and clawed back better than this group when down.

Additionally, goal differentials by period this season also indicate that an early advantage is a must for the Canadiens:

  • Period #1: MTL +2... BOS +23
  • Period #2: MTL +21... BOS -1
  • Period #3: MTL -16...BOS +37

Couple the above telling statistics with the non-statistical elements of the upcoming Montreal-Boston series – namely, the history, the styles of play, the “beatdown”, the “massacre”, the “touchdown” game, etc. – and one can quickly predict that should the Bruins take a 2-0 lead in the first period of Game 1, it may be a rough week for Les Tricolores and their Faithful. Ironically though, the Canadiens did give up the opening goal and lost the opening game in all three Stanley Cup Finals they played in, yet went on to win the Cup in 1986 and 1993.

Perhaps a glimmer of hope should they fall behind early, but not a betting man or Habs fan’s delight.


George Prax's picture

Very interesting blog. I've been saying since Saturday (and before) that winning the first game is imperative for the Canadiens to win this series. You don't win the first game, you definitely won't win the second, and then the Bruins have too much momentum coming back from Montreal. I have no problem extending this theory to the first goal of the first game.

Thursday's going to be nerve wracking and exciting, to say the least.