With a 27-17-5 record for 59 points after Saturday night’s 4-3 victory over the Eastern Conference-leading Buffalo Sabres, the Canadiens are fourth in the conference and comfortably in playoff position.
When the season started, the Canadiens had so many question marks that some wondered if they were a playoff-calibre team.
“Very satisfied,” rookie head coach Guy Carbonneau pronounced about the season so far. “Even with the little slump we had, to get to Jan. 20 with 59 points, second in our division, fourth in the conference . . .
“If you said we’d be here before the season, I’d take it.”
Defenceman Sheldon Souray, whose booming point shot has helped give Montreal one of the league’s top power plays, and Cristobal Huet, whose goaltending has mostly been stellar, will play in the all-star game in Dallas on Wednesday while the rest of the team takes the five-day break.
They go into the pause following wins over Atlanta and Buffalo, the top two teams in the East thus far, after a weak stretch in which they lost nine of 13 games.
They overcame an emotional shock when general manager Bob Gainey lost his daughter in an accident at sea while working on a tall ship in the Atlantic in December, and the physical ordeal of a gastro-intestinal virus that hit at least nine players after Christmas.
But now they have two big wins to digest at their leisure.
“We haven’t won as many games as we wanted to lately, but it’s great for everyone’s frame of mind,” said winger Mike Johnson, one of the team’s off-season signings who has fit like a glove on the team’s checking line with centre Radek Bonk.
“You tend to have a short memory. When you play poorly, you feel you’re the worst team in the world and when you play well, even for a couple of games, you feel so much better about yourself, So I think everyone goes into the break so much more mentally fresh.”
Johnson put the slump down to “the ebbs and flows of the season.”
“We went through 10 or so games where we played inconsistently, and the league is so close that if you’re not at your best – certainly with our team – you’re not going to win. Throwing the flu bug in the middle of that didn’t help, although that wasn’t the cause.”
Before the season, some wondered if Huet’s strong second half of 2005-06 would continue, but the goaltender from France has been among the leaders in save percentage for most of the season and is the main reason for the club’s winning record.
What no one expected was the play of the special teams. Both the power play and the penalty killing have been top-three in the NHL since the first week.
But their slump showed that when special teams tail off and Huet is not at the top of his game, the Canadiens have problems. They are often outplayed at even strength and give up far too many shots.
“There’s still a long way to go until the end of the season,” Carbonneau cautioned. “The players showed a lot of character these last two games and now they can enjoy their week off.”
Another surprise was the emergence of 19-year-old rookie Guillaume Latendresse as a fixture on a top scoring line after making the team straight out of junior hockey.
After going without a point in his first 13 NHL games, the second-round draft pick of 2005 now has 10 goals and 13 assists. He uses his six-foot-two 225-pound frame to work the corners and create traffic in front of opposing goaltenders.
“That was my goal – to be able come to the next camp not worrying about (making the team),” said Latendresse. “The coaches have helped me a lot. If I’m here, it’s because of them.”
Souray has already reached a personal high with 16 goals and set a club record for power-play goals by a defenceman.
“Our opposition doesn’t get easier after the break,” said Souray. “But we won these two games against the best teams in the conference and that’s great for our confidence.
“Now we have a little break and we can come back focused again.”
The down side is that Sergei Samsonov, signed to a two-year US$7.05 million deal last summer, has just seven goals. He’s been shuffled around all four lines and even scratched, with defenceman Craig Rivet, for a game last week.
Alex Kovalev had a slow start but has been playing with renewed energy of late, just when the Canadiens needed it.
Some of their best players early in the season, like Saku Koivu and Chris Higgins, slowed up in recent weeks and will no doubt need the break. The gastro-intestinal virus that hit them and many others looked to have lingering effects on several players.
Souray may have needed a break too, but he said the all-star game is more play than work.
“You’re in a lot of places, but it’s not very stressful,” he said. “It was really fun the last time I was there and it’ll probably be even more fun this time. You still get to relax.”
Huet seemed to come out of nowhere last season to the No. 1 goaltender’s job, prompting Gainey to trade former star Jose Theodore to the Colorado Avalanche.
Now, Huet’s an all-star.
“It’s a huge honour,” said Huet. “I’m very blessed to be there.
“I’ll probably enjoy it. I don’t know what to expect. I’ll be happy when it’s over and I come back here.”