The Montreal Canadiens’ season has officially begun.
Yes, technically the season began a month ago when the Habs played their first game in Buffalo. But it takes more than a simple puck drop to signal the start of a new hockey year. The voyage doesn’t truly start until a team gets a taste of adversity.
After cruising through its first 10 games, the Canadiens are facing their first real test of character following a 6-3 undressing at the hands of their ancient rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That uninspired loss was not an anomaly. It came on the heels of a shootout loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets last Friday and, in truth, captain Saku Koivu said signs of trouble go even deeper than that.
“Hopefully we’re going to realize soon that if we want to be a top team, which everybody expects us to be, the way the game is played, it’s not about who has the best offence,” Koivu told The Canadian Press after Saturday’s embarrassing loss to the Maple Leafs. “A lot of times it’s about who’s the most disciplined team, who’s the best defensively.”
Koivu is certainly on the mark about a lack of commitment to defence, as Montreal is coughing up an average of 31.6 shots per game. Through Saturday night’s action, only seven other teams in the entire league were worse at protecting their goalies. The Canadiens have good, but young, puckstoppers and need to do a better job of insulating them.
But perhaps the biggest indicator of Montreal’s less-than-stellar approach is the lazy penalties Koivu referred to. Coaches count the number of “cheaters” they have on their bench by totalling up all the little hooking and tripping penalties players take when they don’t want to skate hard to get back in the action. The Canadiens need to start doing more with their feet and less with their sticks.
Everybody knew the Habs had a talented team this year, but the cohesiveness the club showed in topping the Eastern Conference standings last season simply hasn’t been there yet.
The challenges facing Montreal are very clear. Let the season begin.
This column also appears in the Montreal Metro newspaper.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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