Like a newborn thoroughbred colt struggling to its feet, this season's edition of the Montreal Canadiens has had some wobbly moments. Last week's outings provide a perfect illustration.
After an impressive 5-1 win over Carolina, the Habs skated into Philadelphia for a date with the decimated Flyers, managed only 17 shots, blew a late third period lead, and fell, 5-3. The Winnipeg Jets waited for them back in Montreal for a game the next night that had ambush written all over it. Instead, the Habs bounced back strongly, winning convincingly, 4-1. That set up Saturday's showdown with the hated Bruins for first place in the Northeast Division.
This is a big race because the team that finishes second will most likely be thrust into the 4-5 first round playoff matchup, which is always a troublesome series. Most observers regard the B's as the better team, and they actually carried the play for much of the game. But they couldn't penetrate the Habs gritty defense for more than one goal and, minus injured Patrice Bergeron, they fell to Montreal for the third straight time in about a month, leaving the Habs three points clear of Boston and three behind the Penguins for the conference lead.
"It was a demanding week and to get to a big game like tonight and perform like that, I'm really proud of those guys," coach Michel Therrien saId after afterward.
No one saw this coming. No one expected the Canadiens to be this good. Few even picked them to make the playoffs. Instead, their invitation to the Stanley Cup party is all but assured with three weeks left in the regular season, and the prospect of a weaker first round foe is their reward.
How have they done it? For one thing, they've been relatively healthy, especially among their best players. Captain Brian Gionta missed most of last season and his leadership in the dressing room and on the ice was sorely missed. So was defenseman Andrei Markov, a superb talent whose knee injuries the past few seasons had transformed him into the forgotten man. He matches up against the opposition's top forwards and, with P.K. Subban, runs the power play. Having these two playing regularly again was like adding two top players.
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Montreal has veteran role players like defensive defenseman Josh Gorges, face-off specialist Jeff Halpern, and rugged Brandon Prust, who know their jobs and excel at them.
And some of the younger Habs like Subban, goalie Carey Price, hard-hitting defenseman Alexei Emelin (Markov's partner who injured his knee against the Bruins and is now out for the season), and winger Max Pacioretty are just getting better with age.
But there's much more to it.
If there was a sequence in the Canadiens' 2-1 win over Boston on Saturday night that typifies what this resurgent team is about, it was the one that resulted in their game-winning power play goal early in the second period. That came courtesy of a Milan Lucic penalty late in the first period, after he climbed on the back of the Habs' Tomas Plekanec, knocking him face down to the ice. Lucic stayed on top of the Canadiens center and, just for good measure, crosschecked him in the back of the neck. Off to the box big Lucic went and, after the intermission, Montreal capitalized.
Notice that as Tomas Plekanec dumps the puck softly into the corner, the Bruins' Dennis Seidenberg is standing at the blue line and he turns to chase it. But he's beaten to it in the corner by Gionta, even though Seidenberg has a 25-foot head start. The 6'-1" Seidenberg then smashes the 5'-7" Gionta into the boards, but the Canadiens captain takes the hit to make the play, allowing Montreal to keep possession. The Habs win another race for the puck behind the net, this time with Plekanec skating past Zdeno Chara. Plekanec caromed it up to the blue line where Subban moved to gather it in and quickly wristed it toward the goal where Michael Ryder deflected the shot. The puck flew past B's goalie Tuuka Rask for a 2-0 lead.
It wasn't an electrifying play, but it boxed up many key elements that have made Montreal the surprise team in the NHL in this shortened campaign. Let's unpack this goal and see what went into it and what it tells us about this edition of the bleu, blanc et rouge.
Power and glory
First is the power play itself, which is among the league's best this season. No team has scored more man advantage goals than the Habs (35), who currently rank sixth in PP percentage at 22.4 percent. Last season, they were among the worst in the league, ranked 28th at 14.3 percent. Subban's 21 power play points ties Alex Ovechkin for most in the league. Markov is right behind with 20 and his seven power play goals lead all defensemen.
The Canadiens' exceptional team speed is one reason their power play works and a major ingredient of their play at full strength, too. It allows them to win races for the puck in any situation. It's quite remarkable to watch them when they are on their game, consistently getting to pucks before opponents and keeping possession. Speed is also a major factor in drawing penalties -- Montreal has had a league-best 156 opportunities, in large part because slower opponents must foul them when they can't stay with the pace.
On the flip side, the Habs have only been shorthanded 82 times, tied for the fewest in the league. Lucic is hardly beloved in Montreal and his little guillotining of Plekanec might have drawn a retaliation in prior years and appreciation from the Bell Centre partisans. But that's not what Therrien is preaching, and the choir has been converted. They stay disciplined and don't beat themselves.
Ryder's power play goal also showed the importance of the Habs' defensemen to the team's overall offensive production. Subban's assist on Ryder's goal gave him 32 points on the year, a point per game pace and tops among all NHL defenders. Markov, with 24 points, ranks fifth. Slick puckmover Raphael Diaz, out since Feb. 25th with a concussion, had a great start to the season, with 13 points in 19 games, and he may be back shortly. Montreal's defensemen as a group have 106 points, the highest total among blueliners this season.
And the addition of Ryder has been crucial to the offense clicking. He's got 18 points in his 18 games since GM Marc Bergevin reacquired him. The guy who went the other way to Dallas, Erik Cole, has four points in 18 games. Cole led the Habs in goals last season with 35, but groused after the lockout ended that he had lost enthusiasm for his career.
It was a clever deal on a few levels. It came days after winger Rene Bourque, playing well again after vanishing last season, was concussed, so it filled an immediate need. Plus Ryder excels on the power play and the Habs needed an upgrade there. Additionally, Cole has two more years remaining on his $4.5 million deal. Ryder is on an expiring contract. He's now playing for another one, and Montreal is the beneficiary of that effort.
And there's lots of familiarity involved, with Ryder having played well in the Montreal pressure cooker under Therrien in an earlier stint and knowing both sides of the Habs-B's rivalry.
Of course, there are many more aspects to this club's return to the top, but now we've arrived at the real smoked meat in this sandwich: the job that Bergevin has done in reviving Club de hockey Canadien.
This organization, hockey's most decorated and glorified, had lost its way, drifting from the status it had long occupied as a model pro sports franchise. Bad feelings abounded, with fans feeling alienated from the team. There were deep suspicions in the dressing room about the dark doings up on the Bell Centre's seventh floor where the hockey department was led by the ultra-secretive Pierre Gauthier. And divisiveness gripped the room itself.
Owner Geoff Molson's hiring of the personable Bergevin -- known as one of the game's better pranksters during his playing days before he apprenticed in Chicago's hockey department -- changed everything. Far more accessible and far less officious than his predecessor, he raised eyebrows on the first day of training camp by dropping Scott Gomez from the club, and followed that up by moving Cole. Bergevin thus dispatched two veterans who were perceived, rightly or wrongly, as detrimental to a winning atmosphere.
But Bergevin had set a new tone earlier by stocking up during the off-season on character players like Colby Armstrong, Francis Bouillon, and most notably Prust, the free agent checking forward whose pugnacious style helped define last season's Rangers squad that finished atop the conference.
And his tinkering continued. After the Ryder deal, he got Halpern and, just recently, young stay-at-home defenseman Davis Drewiske in a trade with the Kings, who will take Emelin's spot. Those acquisitions demonstrated his understanding of his roster's strengths and flaws.
So did the controversial hiring of Therrien, who is now in the discussion about the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. The Canadiens' great disconnect for the last number of seasons was that they had accumulated at considerable expense small, skilled players but, under coach Jacques Martin -- a leading practitioner of defense-first hockey -- they couldn't play to their strengths. Therrien, once cut from similar cloth as Martin, now has a different approach, letting the boys play both ends of the ice. This season, the Habs swarm their foes, all five on offense and all five on defense, and with their speed they have little problem hustling back to their own zone and covering up.
Therrien also seemed like a curious choice due to his temper tantrums and questionable hockey decisions when previously coaching Montreal and Pittsburgh. He claimed to be a changed man and, so far, that's proven true. He's obviously calmer behind the bench and with the media, and he's installed a system that works well for the players he's got. They include the two youngest Habs, teenager Alex Galchenyuk and 20-year-old Brendan Gallagher, a pair of speedsters who seem to up the ante every game. Galchenyuk, gifted offensively, was Bergevin's first pick last June, a bold choice considering that he had missed most of last season due to a knee injury. Therrien has used him judiciously, limiting his ice time and spotting him in situations where he can succeed.
But it's the giggly Gallagher who has captured the fans' imagination. He almost made the team last season out of junior, but returned to the Vancouver Giants for more seasoning. A hard-charging, net-crashing, fearless enfant terrible at 5'-9" and 163 pounds, he doesn't seem to have bad shifts. Having tallied 11 goals and 21 points, is regularly mentioned as a Calder Trophy candidate and he's become a fan favorite.
Gallagher has lots of competition for the crowd's affections. Subban, who is getting Norris Trophy buzz, has been cheered as loudly at home as he's been booed on the road. Price, sure to get some Vezina consideration, is another hero -- except for that small handful of malcontents who still contend that he should have been traded rather than Jaroslav Halak after Halak's playoff heroics in 2010. Some minds never change.
But things have changed in Montreal, and obviously for the better. The Habs still have their uncertain nights --- and when the similarly reborn Alex Ovechkin and his Capitals come to the Bell Centre on Tuesday with eight wins and a regulation tie in their last 10 games, it will be interesting to see if this young colt's legs will wobble or he will gallop in full stride.