Unlikely is probably the right word to describe the Montreal Canadiens’ success in the playoffs this season. That is, unless you are a member of the Montreal Canadiens.
Almost everyone on the outside looking in has written this team off against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets, yet the Habs persevere.
You know what else is unlikely? Any team that wins multiple playoff rounds with its top center contributing zero goals and two assists. And yet here are the Habs.
The fact is, the Canadiens don’t need much on offense from Phillip Danault if he can continue to do what he’s done on defense in these playoffs, and that’s taking down some of the most productive offensive players in the NHL.
Danault’s name has remained in the top five in Selke Trophy voting for the past two seasons, finishing sixth last year and seventh in 2018-19. While Danault’s Selke case isn’t as strong this year as it has been in recent years, he’s showing in these playoffs why he’s one of the best defensive forwards in the league.
On the surface, Danault’s numbers don’t jump off the page. In just under 171 minutes of five-on-five time in the playoffs, the Canadiens have been slightly outclassed and off chance with Danault on the ice. They have also been outscored 4-2. Three of those goals came in the first three games against the Maple Leafs. After dropping Game 4 of that series, the Canadiens have done nothing but win since then, in part because of the efficiency with which Danault has shut out the best opposition players.
Against the Maple Leafs, Danault centered a line with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar that was paired predominantly against the Leafs top line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman. The same Auston Matthews who led the NHL in goals and Mitch Marner who finished in the top five in points during the regular season.
In his head-to-head minutes, Danault’s line achieved what he set out to do, which is to draw even against Matthews’s line. Neither line scored while the other was on the ice. Matthews’s line had a slight advantage in shots and quality shots, but Danault’s line managed to play a low-event game against one of the most dangerous offensive lines in the league. In doing so, Carey Price and the depth of the Canadiens were able to persevere against a Leafs team that greatly missed having their captain John Tavares out of the lineup.
In the final two games of the series, with Tatar on the bench, Jake Evans joined Danault and Gallagher on the top line. This trio limited Matthews’s line to just two combined shots on goal from the slot in Games 6 and 7. In all, Danault went head-to-head with Matthews for 57 minutes and 13 seconds with five-on-five in the first round. and the Canadiens were outscored 1-0. That is a win for Montreal.
In the second round against Winnipeg, Danault along with Gallagher and Artturi Lehkonen dominated the Jets’ best offensive players.
Playing primarily against Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler and Andrew Copp or Kyle Connor, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Wheeler, Danault’s line completely eliminated the Jets’ main offensive threats while producing a considerable amount of opportunities and contributing a couple of goals.
A key to the Jets’ offensive success all season was their ability to score on the bike with the puck. Winnipeg finished the regular season fifth in cycling goals with uniform strength. Against Danault’s line, the Jets’ top two line combinations did not register a scoring opportunity in a single cycle and finished the series with an expected goal total of 0.48.
So what makes him so valuable as a center back for the Canadiens? For starters, if there’s a showdown anywhere outside of the offensive zone, chances are Danault is taking it. Over two rounds, Danault has achieved 149 draws in the defensive zone. No one else in the playoffs has exceeded 100. No one else in the Canadiens has exceeded 50. Danault also leads all Canadiens with 73 neutral zone meetings, 30 more than Nick Suzuki, who ranks second.
While Danault isn’t an imposing figure, weighing in at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, good luck got him out of a battle. Danault ranks fifth among all forwards in the playoffs, averaging 5.3 victories in discus battles per game. Another hallmark of his game is anticipating where the attacking team looks to move the puck next and place their club on the passing lanes. Over the past few seasons, Danault has consistently ranked among the best forwards in the game at blocking passes, especially on his own side. In the playoffs, no forward averages more passes blocked in the defensive zone than Danault’s three per game. This particular skill comes in handy on penalties where Montreal is 90.3 percent better in the playoffs, and Danault leads all of the Canadiens forwards on ice time.
Facing the giant that awaits them, be it Las Vegas or Colorado, Danault and the Canadiens will undoubtedly face the toughest test yet. However, Danault has quietly been able to play against top lines quite evenly over the past two seasons.
If Danault can do what he has done to the top lines of the Leafs and Jets in the next round and turn the offensive battle into one determined by depth, the Canadiens’ Cinderella story may once again not end as soon as the most people think.