While the top players get plenty of attention in the playoffs, our writers take a closer look at some of the X-Factors that could play key roles in Montreal’s push this postseason.
Gordon Black: I see two players that will really help define the team’s chances for a deep run this spring. Among the forwards, I think that the play of Andrew Shaw will be hugely important in terms of setting the tone for how the team will play overall. He was brought in and paid for exactly this time of the year. He needs to find that edge without going over it. Offence is hard to come by and Shaw has a knack for producing ugly and timely goals that can serve as daggers against the opposing side. As long as he plays up to his, seriously underrated, potential and leads by example – he will provide the kind of middle six depth that teams need when the checking gets tighter and the game is on the line.
Honourable Mention: Artturi Lehkonen – that release can change the tone of a game in hurry.
On defence, the team will live and die depending on which Nathan Beaulieu decides to show up. There is a fast, dynamic and effective #2 defenceman that lives in Beaulieu’s head. If that guy can show up in place of the one that overthinks, tries to force plays and takes inopportune penalties, the Habs will have the ability to match up well against a Ranger team that has considerable skill and speed throughout their lineup.
Honourable Mention: Jordie Benn – hopefully the quietly effective warrior is healthy and can keep helping Carey Price do his thing.
A final factor that should be interesting to watch will be Claude Julien – unlike the last few trips to the big dance, the Habs will have a coach capable of making savvy in-game adjustments which is something to keep an eye on given how quickly fortunes can change over the course of a game.
Hilding Gnanapragasm: When discussing the X-Factor players for the Canadiens’ upcoming playoff run, one can’t help but look at the guys who each bring two rings to the table. Shaw and Dwight King’s championship experience will no doubt be invaluable to this group as they enter the fray of playoff hockey.
Beyond those two players though, one player who could emerge as a true X factor for the Canadiens is Lehkonen. The impressive young Finn has already demonstrated that he understands the most important aspect of the NHL postseason – tenacious defence. Beyond that, he has also quietly notched 17 goals. The playoffs are a time when secondary scoring is of vital importance and Lehkonen is quite capable of doing so.
It may seem a bit far-fetched to expect a rookie concluding his first season of North American hockey to suddenly find another gear during the grueling postseason, but Lehkonen is not your typical player.
While playing as a boy amongst men in the Swedish Hockey League, it was in playoffs that Lehkonen truly broke out, as he surpassed Daniel Alfredsson’s club record for postseason scoring, en route to leading Frolunda HC to the 2016 championship. If you believe in the adage ‘once a big game player, always a big game player’ then Artturi Lehkonen could emerge as a surprise X-Factor for the Canadiens in their quest for Cup 25.
Brian La Rose: Up front, while Alex Galchenyuk may not be considered a secondary player, he has been playing like one for quite some time now. If he can return to form – or even come close to doing so – he would go a long way towards providing the Habs with the secondary scoring they’ve been lacking pretty much all season long after the big run to start the season. If he continues his funk, he could be a candidate to slide even further down the lineup as his all-around game isn’t particularly strong at this point.
On the back end, Beaulieu is going to be critical to Montreal’s success. The playoffs are a different monster and Andrei Markov’s lack of speed is likely to be exposed to a greater degree. Alexei Emelin isn’t likely going to be able to step up (if he’s even able to play at the start) so at some point, Beaulieu is probably going to be tasked with a larger role than he’s had over the last few months. If he can step up, he can give the Habs some reliable insurance but if not, the left side of the defence could potentially wind up being their downfall. No pressure there…
Paul MacLeod: Without a doubt, the Canadiens need Carey Price and the top line to perform if they are going to go deep in the playoffs. After that, the secondary scoring will be paramount. Brendan Gallagher will need to continue his resurgence. Paul Byron will have to prove that he can continue his regular season production in the tighter-checking playoffs. I expect Lehkonen to surprise a lot of people while continuing to improve. The real X factors though, will be Shaw – who will score the big goals Marc Bergevin brought him in for – and Galchenyuk whose outstanding playoff will make the current speculation about him being traded in the summer a bizarre and distant memory. Finally, someone on the 4th line will finally score and it will be a big goal.
Craig Scharien: In terms of X-Factors, three players come to mind:
If there’s one player that Habs’ management has brought in since this time last season (and there are quite a few) with an eye towards the playoffs it’s Shaw. The two-time cup champ is a proven playoff performer and was a key cog on great Blackhawks teams during their runs to a championship.
Though he was plagued with the poor judgement and penalties early in the season, Shaw has since it around. The arrival of Julien has had a profoundly positive effect on his play and he has done an admirable job centering a line with Galchenyuk and Lehkonen. I fully expect Shaw to step up big time for the playoffs.
Speaking of Lekhonen, the rookie has been steadily growing into an important role for the Canadiens this season, and I suspect that will continue. As it has gotten down to crunch time his play has been ramping up accordingly. Not only does he display consistent defensive awareness and smarts – especially for a 21 year old – he is also starting to show increasing confidence in his offensive skills, particularly his excellent shot.
Lehkonen was dominant last season with Frolunda in the SHL playoffs, rattling off 11 goals on the way to a championship. He’s shown the ability to step up in clutch situations, and the Habs could sure use the secondary scoring.
Acquired at the trade deadline, the hulking winger has been snake bitten thus far with Montreal, despite coming awfully close at times. While he’s unlikely to dominate on the scoresheet, King played an important role for the Kings during their cup runs alongside the likes of Jordan Nolan and Kyle Clifford. He brings experience with two cup rings and has the size and skill to be a string contributor on the fourth line come playoff time.
Norm Szcyrek: To me, the biggest X-Factor for the Canadiens will be Shaw. While with Chicago, Shaw elevated his game contributing a little extra offensively while continuing to agitate the opposition. Sometimes that led to a higher rate of penalties assigned to Shaw. During the start of this season Shaw also played a similar style while bouncing between the 3rd and 4th lines as a winger. More recently he’s settled into the 3rd/2nd line centre’s role, and has refocused his efforts into the necessary defensive and offensive responsibilities that go with the position. As such it’s difficult to predict which style Shaw will play and how effective he will be doing it. Regardless, I’m expecting Shaw will be a positive contributor for the Habs in the postseason.
David Woodward: Given the parity among so many NHL playoff teams, for any team to advance deep into the postseason, some of their secondary players must overachieve. That is particularly true for the teams that can reasonably be classified as second tier contenders. In this writer’s view, the Canadiens are just that, a rung below the Chicago Blackhawks, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals. With their current line-up, apart from their core players, there are a few primary candidates to become this year’s Paul DiPietro or major contributors in other ways to a deep run:
1) Lekhonen has enjoyed a successful rookie year (16 goals) and has demonstrated a knack for elevating his play at playoff time (witness his playoff performance with Frolunda in the Swedish Hockey League last year when he broke Alfredsson’s long-standing playoff scoring record while leading Frolunda to the League championship). Lekhonen’s defensive play and hockey sense will most likely earn him plenty of ice time in the post-season, notwithstanding his young age.
2) Shaw was acquired for his Stanley Cup resume, raw determination and, most importantly, his ability to elevate his game late in the season and in the playoffs. Shaw has been more effective the last 20 games than he had been in the previous 60 this season. Now is his time to shine.
3) Gallagher has underachieved all season (partly due to his hand injury) but he seems to be emerging from his slump at the right time. Gallagher is playing with more energy the last few weeks and his recent puck handling and shooting suggest his hand injury is coming around.
4) The Canadiens’ trade deadline acquisitions did little to improve their scoring prowess but they did bulk up. In a physical series, super-pest Steve Ott, Andreas Martinsen and King may indeed provide much needed energy and physicality.
5) On the back end, the Habs deadline acquisitions of Benn and Brandon Davidson improved their depth, which will be imperative for a deep playoff run where injuries are inevitable. Neither is likely to appear much on the scoresheet but Benn in particular must be a key member of the defensive corps if the Canadiens are to make a run.