MONTREAL – Of all the teams battling for the top seeding in the NHL playoffs, the one that sticks out is the Montreal Canadiens.
When hockey pundits were making predictions for the 2007-8 season, few had Montreal even in the playoffs, let alone contending for first place in the Eastern Conference.
They were 10th last season, and the off-season additions of free agents Tom Kostopoulos, Bryan Smolinski and Roman Hamrlik didn’t exactly spur fans or media to shout ‘Wow.’
But in the past month, they’ve been trading top spot from day to day with Ottawa, New Jersey and Pittsburgh. A playoff spot is almost a lock and a top-four finish a distinct possibility.
While not the biggest, toughest team on the block, the Canadiens win with a high-tempo, quick-transition game with scoring three lines deep. They will almost certainly have seven players with more than 50 points and, as they were in the glory years three decades ago, are battling for the league lead in goals scored.
Here’s a look at what has gone right for the Canadiens this season:
Good health: All 24 players on the roster are healthy and the closest they have come to missing a key player for an extended period was when Hamrlik was out for five games with a virus in January, during which they lost a season-high three games in a row. Alex Kovalev, Andrei Markov, Mike Komisarek, Christopher Higgins and Mark Streit have not missed a game this season, while Saku Koivu and Tomas Plekanec missed one each.
Kovalev’s rebirth: Last season, the big right-winger looked like his career was in steep decline, with a listless 19 goals and 47 points. After a summer of reflection and work on his conditioning, Kovalev is the Canadiens’ best player and scoring leader with 74 points, including 31 goals, his highest total since 2000-01 with Pittsburgh.
Power play: It led the league last season and is No. 1 again, even though point man Sheldon Souray, who had 19 power-play goals in 2006-07, left as a free agent for Edmonton. Streit took over that spot and, while he has only seven goals with the man advantage, the Swiss national team captain has given the first unit with Markov, Kovalev, Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn extra passing and playmaking depth. Kovalev has 16 power-play goals and Plekanec 11 so far.
Hamrlik: After seeing him play, Montreal fans wondered why there wasn’t more of an outcry in Calgary when the veteran defenceman left as a free agent, but it seems to be a case of a player being a perfect fit for a particular team. The Canadiens had extra cash and needed a big (six-foot-two 215-pound), experienced, steady-eddy type on their blue-line and Hamrlik has fit the bill. And after playing alongside Dion Phaneuf in Calgary, he is now helping to develop rookie Ryan O’Byrne.
Goaltending: Montreal lucked out by getting the fifth overall pick by lottery in the lockout year 2005 draft and selected six-foot-three Carey Price, who has had more ups than downs as rookie and looks to be their goalie for the next several years. Enough anyway, that general manager Bob Gainey confidently traded veteran Cristobal Huet last month to make room for another promising goalie prospect, Jaroslav Halak, to serve as back-up.
The draft: A weakness through the 1990s has become a strength as homegrown talent like Komisarek, Plekanec and Higgins have grown into front-line players while rookies and second-year men like Price, brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and Guillaume Latendresse excel in important roles. And there are more impressive young players still on their way through the system, particularly on defence where AHLers Pavel Valentenko and Mathieu Carle and U.S. college pick Ryan McDonough stand out.
Coaching: Guy Carbonneau admits he had a bit of a rough first year as a head coach last season, getting mouthy with officials and being a little blunt with players, but now opponents often remark that the Canadiens are “well-coached.” Carbonneau is now mentioned as a candidate for coach of the year honours. He also has a solid cast of assistants in Doug Jarvis, Kirk Muller and Roland Melanson.
But it hasn’t all been perfect this season.
Michael Ryder, a 30-goal scorer the last two seasons, was asked to improve his defensive game and has done that, except that he’ll be hard-pressed to score 20 this season.
Their penalty-killing, among the league’s best in 2006-07, is now in the bottom half.
And they have a hard time with the Western Conference, against whom they were 3-5-2 this season, and division rival Ottawa (1-5-0).
But even if they crash and burn, it’s been a very good year for a team that was supposed to be on vacation early.