With very few exceptions, the Montreal Canadiens can seem to do no wrong this season. Really, they managed to trade Erik Cole Wednesday night for a guy with an expiring contract. From the GM’s office down to the ice, almost everything the Canadiens have touched has turned to gold.
The team that finished dead last in the Eastern Conference last season goes into Wednesday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs not only first in the East, but also with a virtual lock on a playoff spot. Since the 2004-05 lockout, it has required an average of 93 points to make the playoffs. In this truncated season, that translates to 54 points, which means the Canadiens need just 27 points in their final 29 games to qualify for the post-season party.
Perhaps we should not be as surprised with what the Canadiens have accomplished as we are. After all, this was a team that went to the Eastern Conference final three years ago, then took the eventual Stanley Cup champions to overtime of Game 7 the next season. In large part because of injuries, the Habs took an enormous step backward last season, but the NHL is far friendlier to dramatic turnarounds than it once was.
And while the Canadiens might not be the best team in the East, and may very well not be once the Boston Bruins catch up in games played, they are much better than the third-worst team in the league they were last season.
“Last year was a bad year,” acknowledged Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges. “We can sit here and make excuses for why that is, but I’m not going to do that. This year is a new year and we’ve tried to answer some of the questions as to why we struggled last year and we corrected things.”
Many of those corrections have come on the defensive side of the game. Only five teams in the NHL hat are worse on faceoffs than the Canadiens are, but despite the fact they’re far more likely to start plays without the puck than with it, they’re third in the league in shots against with just 25.9 per game. Having a healthy and productive Andrei Markov has helped immensely. But the Canadiens are also getting production and contributions up and down the lineup with players such as Lars Eller, Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz making enormous strides as players. Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk have injected some youthful enthusiasm and have been major contributors. And both have proven to be very difficult to knock off the puck. And Carey Price is putting together the best statistical season of his career.
“We’re believing in each other,” Gorges said. “We believe in the fact that if we play the way we’re capable of playing and we buy in together, that we’re a good group. When everyone is pulling in the same direction, you’re going to have success and we’re starting to buy into that and realize the situation that we’re in. The core of this group is thick and when you have that dynamic, it makes your team dangerous.”
Some critics scoffed at new GM Marc Bergevin’s decision to go with Michel Therrien as his first coach, but it’s clear the Canadiens have bought into his system and are far more responsible defensively than they were even under Jacques Martin or Guy Carbonneau. And one of the reasons for that better overall play is not necessarily because of a suffocating defensive system, but because the Canadiens are much more aggressive on the puck in all zones of the ice. Logic would dictate that, faceoffs aside, if you’re first to more pucks, you’re going to have it more often and don’t have to play defense. And there might not be a player who epitomizes that philosophy more than Gallagher, whose feet always seem to be moving and a guy who, despite his size, is aggressive on the puck and not afraid to get to the puck first in the dirty areas of the ice.
After losing 6-0 to the Maple Leafs and being dominated in every facet of the game, the Canadiens went on a 6-0-2 tear and outscored their opponents 22-10.
“It’s how you react,” Therrien said. “You could fall down, but the important thing for a coach is how your team’s going to react and we’ve reacted really well since that game. We’ve been good and we learned.”
Off the ice, Bergevin somehow managed to get the Dallas Stars leading scorer – and, get this, a third-round pick – for an underachieving winger who has two expensive years remaining on his contract. Ryder’s full season cap hit is $3.5 million compared to $4.5 million for Cole. Ryder’s contract expires after this season, which will give the Canadiens cap flexibility both this summer and the off-season in 2014, when they will be faced with the prospect of re-signing restricted free agents Lars Eller and P.K Subban and unrestricted free agents Emelin and Diaz.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.