MONTREAL – Scoring may be down a little in the NHL this season, but don’t tell that to the Montreal Canadiens.
With five games left in the regular season, the Canadiens are on pace for their highest goal total since Vincent Damphousse, Pierre Turgeon and their teammates scored 265 in 1995-96.
This year’s team has 247 goals – second in the league to the high-powered Ottawa Senators – heading into Friday night’s game in Buffalo. The Quebec sports bar chain La Cage aux Sports, which gives customers free chicken wings each time the Canadiens score five or more goals, has had to serve them up 16 times this season.
“We have a lot of guys back from last year and there’s better chemistry, a better understanding of where to be on the ice,” coach Guy Carbonneau said Thursday. “Our offence was good last year, but we have better defence, so there’s more balance.
“We tried to sell our system to the players by saying that if we play better defensively, we’ll be able to score more goals.”
Two more points from winger Christopher Higgins and the Canadiens will achieve something they haven’t had since 1988-89 – seven players with 50 points or more. That year, Mats Naslund was the leader with 84 points, followed by Bobby Smith (83), Chris Chelios (73), Stephane Richer (60), Carbonneau (56), Claude Lemieux (51) and Shayne Corson (50).
This year’s leader is Alex Kovalev, who needs one more to become the first Canadien to reach 80 points since Damphousse had 81 in 1996-97. His centre Tomas Plekanec has 66, followed by Andrei Markov (57), Saku Koivu (55), Mark Streit (55), Andrei Kostitsyn (51) and Higgins (48). The only team close this season is Pittsburgh with six.
“I don’t think anyone sets goals for 50 points, but it shows how balanced the attack is this year,” said Higgins. “We’re getting goals from different places and different guys. It’s a plus for us.”
With 23 goals and 25 assists, Higgins has already surpassed his career-best 38 points from last year.
Plekanec, who had 47 points last season, Markov (49), Streit (36) and Kostitsyn (11 in only 22 games) are also having their best seasons thus far.
It is a far cry from those three lean seasons from 1998-99 to 2000-01 when they didn’t have a single 50-point scorer.
Kovalev, who had only 47 points in a miserable 2006-07 campaign, is already having the second-best season of his career, although he won’t match the 95 points he collected in 2000-01 with Pittsburgh, when he tied for fourth in NHL scoring behind Jaromir Jagr, Joe Sakic and Patrick Elias.
Entering Thursday’s games, Kovalev was 13th in league scoring, but a strong finish could make him the first Canadien to finish in the top 10 since Naslund was eighth with 110 points in 1985-86 – the year Wayne Gretzky piled up his record 215 points for Edmonton.
For Higgins, a statistic just as big is goals against. Last season, Montreal gave up 256 goals, but they have surrendered only 213 so far.
“This year, we’re moving the puck forward and letting the forwards establish the forecheck,” he said. “And we’ve played really well in the neutral zone, creating turnovers and limiting speed through the zone.
“We’ve created offence out of good defence. I think that was a problem last year. We were porous. Teams were able to skate right through us. And we were using a lot of energy from teams keeping us in the defensive zone, so we weren’t able to produce offence because we were too tired.”
The Canadiens are gunning for first place in the Eastern Conference, or at least first in the Northeast Division, and don’t want to let up even though they clinched a playoff spot with a 7-5 victory over Ottawa on Monday.
They had two days off practice this week, but had a good skate Thursday before flying to Buffalo. The Sabres finished first overall in the league last season but now are only a loss or two away from being eliminated. Toronto is in a similar predicament.
Last season, the Leafs knocked Montreal out of the playoffs with a comeback win in the final regular season game at the Air Canada Centre.
“I don’t think we’re looking to ruin their summer, we just want to win the game,” Higgins said of Saturday’s game against the Leafs. “It’s nice to have that kind of power, but it’s not really about the other teams now.
“We just want to keep guys focused and determined and have that mindset for the playoffs.”
Left-winger Guillaume Latendresse did not make the trip. He will get extra treatment for neck spasms suffered last week against Boston and hopes to be back for a game Tuesday night in Ottawa. Defenceman Mike Komisarek remains sidelined until at least the end of the regular season with what the team calls a lower-body injury.
The topic of the day in the hallways was a column by veteran hockey writer Red Fisher of the Montreal Gazette, who argued that the Canadiens should not retire the No. 33 jersey of former goaltending great Patrick Roy after the ugly brawl on Saturday involving Roy’s Quebec Remparts and the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, who are part-owned by Carbonneau.
The Canadiens, who have not announced which jersey they will retire next season, had no comment. Carbonneau, Roy’s former teammate, wouldn’t bite.
“The Montreal Canadiens have been here for 100 years and they’ve made a lot of good decisions over the years,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll sit down and talk about it and make the right decision on this.”