Habs Enter the All-Star Break on a Roll

Watching the kids in the Habs’ 2018 prospect pool make a big splash at the recent IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships must have come as a welcome sight to Marc Bergevin and Trevor Timmins, come, as it did, at about the same time another once-ballyhooed pick, the enigmatic Nikita Scherbak, was joining the organization’s growing list of recent first-round busts. That will all be forgotten, a blip on the cosmic radar screen, if the likes of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki, Ryan Poehling and diamond-in-the-rough Alexander Romanov – voted the junior’s tourney’s top defenceman and easily the sleeper pick of his draft class – can come close to fulfilling their ample promise. 

While the Christmas lights were shining bright on the Habs’ future in Vancouver and Victoria, here in Montreal Jordie Benn was on fire, with goals in three successive games, the second coming in the Habs’ first game back at the Bell Centre after the successful six-game road swing to close out the first half of the season. Montreal’s bearded wonder isn’t about to unlock his long-dormant offensive potential, but he’s given Claude Julien stalwart minutes and kept his feet moving, and his continued strong play and eagerness to throw his weight around make him the most likely candidate to be dealt by the trade deadline. If the return is a third- or fourth-round pick, however, Bergevin would do well to sit pat and stand by his roster by giving its players a chance to finish what they started.

With the post All-Star segment of the calendar looming larger by the day, the dogfight for the wildcard spots in the Eastern Conference promises to escalate, on some nights, into a war of wills waged in the trenches. Look for the rules of engagement to be gradually loosened until anything short of grievous bodily harm goes unpunished. There will be blood.

For the handful of teams in the mix, including your Montreal Canadiens, still the surprise team of the Eastern Conference, with honourable mention to the Barry Trotz-led New York Islanders, goaltending will be key. And in that department, the Habs are in enviable shape: sometime in early December, the statistics show, Carey Price rediscovered the form that’s made him the best goalie of his generation never to have won a Stanley Cup, and that can only bode well for the Montreal Canadiens—and ill for their opponents.

Meanwhile, the players around him has shown a season-long knack for bouncing back after tough losses—including a few embarrassing blowouts. There have been no prolonged losing streaks, and on most nights, the Habs have used their speed game to put other teams back on their heels. With even the remotest semblance of a powerplay, the Canadiens could be playing second banana to only the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Atlantic Division.

They continue to do it with a balanced attack – seven Habs have at least 10 goals – paired with a defence corps that’s held its own, particularly since Weber’s return to play, and stellar goaltending. Phillip Danault has quietly emerged as one of the league’s most underrated pivots, and should he continue to produce at or near a point-a-game pace while dominating the dot, he’ll merit consideration for the Selky Trophy alongside one of his idols, four-time Selky winner Patrice Bergeron. His increased production has also come at a time when Max Domi has struggled to find the back of the net.

Claude Julien’s decision to break up the Drouin-Domi tandem paid immediate dividends. Domi has since broken out of his slump, while Drouin – say what you will – remains on pace to record 60-plus points, a vast improvement over last year. With the mercurial winger, I suspect, fans and coaches will have to learn to live with the player he is: electrifying one minute, invisible the next—or worse yet, prone to Santa-esque giveaways. That inconsistency may hasten his departure from Montreal in the end, if you believe the scuttlebutt…   

As it stands, the Habs, with their victory over the Arizona Coyotes, leapfrogged over the Bruins for third spot in the Atlantic Division, just a point back of the slumping Toronto Maple Leafs—a prospect most (myself included) would have considered preposterous before the season began. And for good measure they will enter the post All-Star portion of the schedule with a full lineup that’s expected to include Andrew Shaw. Surprisingly, the league’s smallest team has largely dodged the injury bug to date.

Through 50 games, the Habs have been a model of consistency, and with the exception of a rash of injuries to key players, there’s no reason to believe they won’t continue to defy expectations down the stretch and into the first round of the playoffs, particularly with the real Carey Price minding the fort.

And why not? Stranger things have happened—just look at Vegas. Last spring the expansion Golden Knights rode a hot goaltender all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

Unrealistic? Perhaps, but it never hurts to dream.  

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