BROSSARD, Que. – That the defence produced six points in a 5-2 victory in Florida on the weekend was nothing new for the Montreal Canadiens.
Defencemen have figured prominently in the Canadiens’ forging a 17-5-4 record to start the NHL season.
The Montreal defence has scored a league-leading 17 goals while its 74 points is second only to the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins’ back line. No other team is even close.
“We’re trying to activate off the rush,” defenceman Josh Gorges said Tuesday. “In today’s game, to score five-on-five you have to have your defence involved.
“Today’s guys backcheck so hard and they collapse in the middle and there’s no room for plays if you don’t have your defence making it an odd-man rush. The other reason is our power play’s been good for us all year.”
The Canadiens will seek a fourth straight win when they host the Ottawa Senators at the Bell Centre on Wednesday night.
P.K. Subban, who has 10 points in his last seven games, leads the club with six goals and 18 points in only 20 games. Veteran Andrei Markov has chipped in five goals and 12 assists in 26 contests.
Raphael Diaz had 13 points in 19 games before going down with a concussion while Alexei Emelin, who had seven points as a rookie last season, has 10 so far this year.
Gorges likes to stay back and defend but even he has two goals, matching his total in 82 games last season.
He says much of it stems from players buying into coach Michel Therrien’s system of attacking and defending in five-man units. The defencemen also pinch in more from the point to keep pucks in the attacking zone.
“We want to be a team that plays in tight five-man units in all three zones of the ice,” said Gorges. “I think that’s why we’ve done a better job this year in our own end because we’re all compact and we’re outnumbering teams.
“But through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone we want that same mentality. We want the defence involved. We want that odd-man rush to make it a four-on-three and even to have that fifth attacker up in the play. It’s tough to score five-on-five without it.”
The Canadiens have scored 55 of their 84 goals (third in the Eastern Conference) with both teams at full strength.
It’s one of several factors that has contributed to the club jumping from last in the conference in 2011-’12 to battling for top spot this season. Another has been a power play that has gone from No. 28 in the 30-team league to the top 10 with a 20 per cent success ratio.
It helps having Markov back after missing much of the last three seasons with injuries. The 34-year-old is a master of distributing the puck from the left side and at darting in and back to the point to outnumber the defenders near the net.
His four goals and four assists in the first six games helped Montreal set the tone with a 4-2-0 start to the season.
He was paired with Diaz on the first power-play unit to start the campaign, but lately has started clicking with Subban on the right point. The 23-year-old has a point in all of the squad’s last seven-power play goals.
Subban has also been a force at even strength and all the talk early in the season that his natural flair was being stifled by Therrien’s “team concept” approach has faded.
Subban missed the first six games of the season while getting a two-year contract signed and needed some time to find his legs and adapt to the new coach’s system but has been a force in recent weeks.
Subban may not try end-to-end rushes as he once did but has excelled at getting past forecheckers and moving the puck up the ice.
Gorges uses words like “phenomenal” and “unbelievable” to describe his defence partner.
“In the last few games, he’s really simplified his game and when he plays a simple game, that’s when he’s best,” said Gorges. “His ability to hold off forecheckers is uncanny, incomparable around the league.
“When he can do that and make that first pass and join the rush, that’s when he’s at his best. It’s when he gets into open areas and wants to do too much that he puts himself in trouble. Lately, he’s getting pucks on the net and guys are getting in front so he’s getting us points.”
Subban looks to have learned from Diaz that getting a softer shot on net from the point can be more effective than blasting every puck, although he’ll still make the big wind-up and drill one when there’s room.
“That’s just maturity coming through: learning what works and that you don’t need the big slapper every time,” captain Brian Gionta said of Subban. “He’s a huge talent and he’s extremely important to the team, and when it’s structured like that and he’s doing it in the right fashion, he can be a top-tier defenceman in this league.
“He’s still a young guy. He’s got some things to learn in this game. But that’s what he’s doing and it’s helping the team.”
Subban did not speak to the media, an option he has chosen more often than in the past.
The team approach is also reflected in the forwards. Last season, the line with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty did most of the scoring but this year the top three lines have taken turns in the spotlight.
That may be why the team has not been slowed by injuries to wingers Rene Bourque and Brandon Prust.
The Canadiens, on a two-day break after playing six games in nine days, are coming off a five-game road trip where they picked up eight-of-10 points. A schedule that saw them play mostly at home early has now balanced out with a 9-2-2 record on the road and 8-3-2 at home.
Bourque skated before practice, while Diaz worked out in the gym, but it is uncertain when either will return. Prust is out 10-to-14 days with a separated shoulder.