Habs avert disaster to climb back into the playoff race

As a card-carrying member of hockey’s wretched armchair pundit class, I am not immune to bold statements that over time prove to be patently false, or worse. We inveterate bloggers straddle a thin line between divination, prescription, outrage, and abject wrongheadedness, and we do it happily, with no fear of losing our day jobs. Case in point: Just a few weeks I suggested Jonathan Drouin’s stay in Montreal was destined to end prematurely. I was among those who believed the Sainte-Agathe-born centreman-cum-winger was drowning in Montreal’s overheated media fishbowl and would eventually set a course, via the trade route, for calmer waters south of the Mason-Dixon line, where hockey often can take a backseat to football, basketball, baseball, and now that Vegas has an NHL team, gambling.

A reinvigorated Jonathan Drouin this season had given the lie to suggestions he would never live up to his billing as an impact forward. He was, until his untimely collision with the 8 train out of Washington, the Habs’ best and most consistent player, and losing him to injury left a huge hole in the Habs’ lineup, one the team has been hard-pressed to fill. The Canadiens’ performance after both he and Paul Byron went down, including the Tuesday evening massacre at the hands of the Bruins, did nothing to ease concerns that the Habs need all hands on deck to remain competitive. Adding to those concerns, through the final two weeks of November, was the play of Carey Price and Jeff Petry, with honourable mention to all but a few in the Habs’ forward group.

 The hope, of course, was that an internal solution would emerge and the Habs would draw on the same depth and balanced attack that carried the team last season, with a return to form by Carey Price and, let’s face it, a renewed commitment to defence—supposedly the hallmark of Claude Julien-coached teams. But with the losses piling up – six straight entering the American Thanksgiving doubleheader against the Flyers and Bruins – that vaunted depth was not delivering the desired results, and there was a growing sense of urgency for Marc Bergevin to stop the bleeding by whatever means necessary, including via transaction. And you can bet the Canadiens’ GM was feeling the heat, because nothing concentrates the mind quite like hanging, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson.

All of this just days before the Habs made it eight straight, the rough patch now officially the size of PEI. Then, a workman-like victory against the pesky New York Islanders that saw the Canadiens, to a man, get back to basics with sound fundamental defence and solid team play. The same lunch-bucket recipe led the Canadiens to victory in four of the next five games, including a solid road win against an always tough Penguins’ squad, and the losing skid, the team’s worst in a decade, was over. The Canadiens’ leadership core played a predominant role in the turnaround, and it starts with the league’s most unheralded first line pivoted by the indefatigable Phillip Danault. Both he and Brendan Gallagher found a way to elevate their games, and the top line has supplied the lion’s share of the offence during the Habs’ modest hot streak. The defence, anchored by Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot, have done a better job of boxing out opponents on the penalty-kill—which was absolutely critical, with opponents converting at a brisk clip of close to 30% in the first 20 games of the season.

It seems the Habs can’t have it both ways, however: the team’s improved defence has come at a cost—a drop in offensive output, particularly through their bottom six. While the Suzuki and Thompson lines have failed to contribute much offensively, they do manage to keep the puck out of the Canadiens’ net—which is all well and good, but it doesn’t exactly scream contender. Late bloomer Joel Armia continues to show that there was another level to his game, one he was never given a chance to display on a stacked Winnipeg Jets roster. On many nights, from where I’m sitting, one hand buried in a bowl of ketchup chips, the other fumbling between the couch cushions for the remote, Armia has been the Canadiens’ best player, bar none. There’s a patience and persistence about his game, the way he uses his size and reach to work the low boards and wear opponents down before attacking the net. Without Armia’s contribution, the Habs have been getting little or nothing from their second line of late. Both Max Domi and Arturri Lehkonen have struggled to score, though Lehkonen makes up for it with stellar defensive play. If there was ever a time for Max Domi to become a reasonable facsimile of the player he was last season, that time is now. And if the Habs thought they’d tee up their pre-Christmas road trip with an easy home-ice victory against the league-worst Detroit Red Wings last Saturday, someone forgot to notify the Red Wings. The Canadiens, their record shows, continue to play to the level of their opposition. Which may bode well for their chances on the West Coast and then Florida, where the Habs will close out 2019 against six teams with winning records.

As Marc Bergevin cautioned in his Monday media scrum, the Montreal Canadiens, all things considered – the steady parade to the infirmary, the rookies learning on the fly – are about where they thought they’d be at this juncture of the season: clinging to a wildcard spot, their opponents in close pursuit. Had either the Leafs or Lighting played up to expectation through the first 20 games of the calendar, the Habs could well be 10 points out of a playoff berth with a West Coast swing on the near horizon.

There is no clear path to the postseason for the Montreal Canadiens. To suggest otherwise is pure fantasy. But they remain in the mix, which is the best we can expect, at least for the time being.

A Look Ahead to the Habs’ Upcoming Season

A measly two points – a single victory or a pair of shootout losses – was all that separated your Montreal Canadiens from a post-season berth and a chance to pull off a stunning upset against a Tampa team that by then was sleepwalking into the playoffs, having clinched a spot a full month before the end of the campaign. But that was last year.

Surely the players and the cognoscenti now hunkered down at the Bell Centre can dig deep and put an extra two points on the board, even four to make it a nice round 100. But that’s not the way it works in pro hockey or in life: you have to earn your brownie points, and for bubble teams like the Habs, few of those points will come easy over the course of an 82-game season.

The Canadiens last year got career seasons from the likes of Max Domi and Tomas Tatar, to name a few, and together with Brendan Gallagher and the ineffable Jonathan Drouin, they will again be counted on to supply the meat of the offence in 2019-2020. In all fairness to Drouin, he seems intent on playing a full season, as evidenced by his well documented efforts to “simplify” his game under the guidance of Dominique Ducharme.

Barring a pre-season trade – not an unlikely scenario, with the kids pushing for spots and a handful of teams looking for cap relief – the Canadiens enter the campaign with much the same team as last year’s and a bottom-six logjam that was 10 players deep before last week’s round of cuts. There’s a similar congestion, give or take, on the third defence pairing, with Cale Fleury quietly playing himself into the conversation—and soon the lineup, if Bergevin can deal Mike Reilly. Both Fleury and Bergevin’s biggest free-agent acquisition, Ben Chiarot, are sure to bring some much-needed belligerence to the Habs’ blueline corps.

For now, at least, the Canadiens’ GM can afford to sit tight and see how the kids fare before he makes his move. And if the pre-season is any indication – which it typically isn’t – the likes of Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki, to quote Claude Julien, are not just on the doorstep, they’re “knocking on the door.”

So, while the team’s biggest off-season needs – a left-shot defenceman and a top-six scoring winger – remain unfulfilled, Bergevin and his scouting department have stocked the cupboard with gilt-edged prospects primed to put their stamp on the team sooner rather than later. But patience is the watchword: the team’s brightest prospects – Poehling, Suzuki and Kotkaniemi – will need a few years to reach their full maturity and potential, and the same is true, and then some, for Cole Caufield. That the Canadiens were not able to sign Jake Gardiner came as a surprise to no one. But it will prove to be a blessing down the line, as it gives Bergevin has the flexibility to bide his time until the right deal comes skating along. By then, Victor Mete may have proven that it was never really necessary in the first place. Besides, with Alexander Romanov a year or so shy of suiting up in a Habs’ jersey, a short-term fix – a trade-deadline rental – might prove the most sensible option, unless the wheels fall off early. 

And now a word about weight management, a popular topic in today’s NHL, with so many players, depending on age, either gaining weight to stand up to the big boys or losing it to keep pace with the youth movement in full swing across the league. In Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s case, the extra poundage thus far does not seem to be wearing well. If it turns out you can’t gain 14 pounds in less than a year and expect to get around an ice sheet at quite the same rate of speed, the Habs could have a problem with their third line.

The main takeaway out of training camp is that the Habs enter the 2019-2020 campaign with a pair of first-round picks and a 20-year-old D-man ready to make the jump and contribute to the team’s success tout de suite. Around the Bell Centre, as you might expect, trade rumours have begun to swirl, with the enigmatic Jonathan Drouin front and center. If his pre-season ice time is any indication, Drouin’s stay in Montreal may be as fleeting as the tantalizing glimpses of exceptional talent he showed down the stretch last season.

Four points to make it an even 100, in that case. Failing that, Habs fans can be chuffed about the team’s chances of contending for the Cup, but just not this year, and probably not the next. In the meantime, strap on your seatbelts, because the Canadiens, with their speed game and their youth, will be fun to watch, playoff spot or not.

They are a team on the rise.

The Habs 2018-2019 Season a Qualified Success

Amid the sights and sounds of spring, the yawning potholes and epic construction detours, the Bell Centre basks in radio silence on this May 8, the past season fading into insignificance a full month after the Canadiens’ playoff hopes were dealt a crippling blow in Columbus. The Habs gave it everything they had, only to fall achingly short in the final days of the season. Still, the takeaway, for fans, is that the future is nowhere near as bleak as it seemed entering the season – 96 points is nothing to sneeze at – and all that talk of a tear-down, it turns out, was grossly exaggerated.

Surprisingly, when you consider the tire fire that was 2017-2018, all it took to make the Canadiens competitive again was a pair of major trades (those that brought Tomas Tatar and Max Domi to Montreal to fix the “attitude” problem), the unexpected emergence of gangly teenager Jesperi Kotkaniemi as the team’s third-line center, and Carey Price’s return to all-world form after what we can charitably say was an off-year. Add to that the continued development of core players Philip Danault, Brandon Gallagher and Artturi Lehkonen (the best 12-goal scorer in the NHL), together with strong campaigns from a stellar supporting cast (Andrew Shaw, Joel Armia et al) and some late-season acquisitions from the bargain bin (Nate Thompson, Jordan Weal and Christian Frolin), and the Montreal Canadiens had the makings of a team that was more than just competitive. They laid siege, at times, to opposing defences, overwhelmed them with speed. Scoring, post-Pacioretty and Galchenyuk, was up. Who knew?

Marc Bergevin, his coutured derriere in danger of being shown the door, orchestrated a Montreal-style reboot, yet still managed to leave a cool $8 million and change on the table: he should be in contention for GM of the Year. To think how much better the Habs could have been had he found someone – anyone – to accept his money. Which goes to show, you literally can’t pay free agents enough to play for the Montreal Canadiens, nowadays. So Bervegin, by force of circumstance, has become the Zen Master of the minor trade. The kind that barely registers a blip on the NHL radar yet improves the team in specific areas. Phillip Danault, Brett Kulak, Joel Armia, Jordan Weal, Christian Frolin, even Jordie Benn: can anyone remember who the Habs gave up to get these guys? Yet they’ve become valuable pieces of the turnaround underway in Montreal (with the exception of Phillip Danault, of course, who was acquired in 2016). Comet-on-skates Paul Byron was a waiver-wire pickup, for Pete’s sake. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Habs iced two fourth lines in 2018-2019: one to start the season, and another to finish it.

If you were tuning in from the couch, as I was, as far as I can remember, it was like watching a different team play, though most of the same players were still around. The work of duplicating that feat next season has begun in earnest, we can be sure. Bergevin needs to get out there and spend some money (about $11 million will do), yet faces some uniquely Canadian challenges: climate, taxation, white-hot media scrutiny, and in Québec, the language barrier… To lure the likes of Matt Duchene to La belle province, the Canadiens’ GM would have to offer maximum term and salary, then sweeten the pot with can’t-resist incentives: free BIXI memberships, museum passes, etcetera. All kidding aside, don’t let’s hold our breath waiting for Duchene or Panarin to put pen to paper in Montreal. Sure, the Canadiens would be remiss not to take a run at them, but if I was Marc Bergevin, I’d have a Plan B in the name of pending UFA Anders Lee. Though not a centreman, Lee would provide the kind of overly large netfront presence the Canadiens sorely lack. The Minnesota-born winger has posted an impressive 102 goals through three seasons with the New York Islanders. Put him in front of the net and watch Jesperi Kotkaniemi or Max Domi spoon-feed him the puck.      

And then there’s the defence. If I’m Marc Bergevin, I’m on the blower to my old buddy Dale Tallon to ask what it would take to pry Montreal-born defenceman Mike Matheson away from Sunrise, Florida. If not Matheson, then any other left-shot defenceman or RFA who can pair up alongside Shea Weber for a season or two, until Alexander Romanov is ready to wear the mantle.

On the doorstep, meanwhile, and coming to an NHL rink near you as early as next October, if you believe the hype: forwards Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki. Both have given Montreal fans tantalizing glimpses of their considerable talent. Poehling did nothing to dampen those expectations in his NHL debut, posting three goals (three and a half if you count the shootout winner) against those darn Leafs to bring down the curtain on the Habs’ 2018-2019 season. Talk about setting the bar high. Credit Poehling’s coach at St. Cloud State, Brett Larson, for taking to the air to temper expectations. Nick Suzuki? His dominant run in this year’s OHL playoffs – 16 goals and 42 points in 24 games, with a +22 for good measure – bodes well for his chances of cracking the Canadiens’ lineup as soon as next season. In Sukuki, the Canadiens clearly have a player who processes the game at an elite level. That high IQ is sure to ease his path to the NHL.   

The 2019-2020 season just cannot come soon enough, if you’re a Habs fan. For the first time in years, there’s a renewed optimism surrounding the team, a sense that with few key off-season additions – a top-six forward and a left-shot defenceman – and an impressive stable of first- and second-tier prospects set to challenge for roster spots next fall, the elusive “window to win” may open in Montreal much sooner than people think.

Habs’ Hunt for a Playoff Berth Goes Down to the Wire

The Ides of March this year saw the Montreal Canadiens licking their wounds on the losing end of a visit to Brooklyn, in a game where they hung around, like nobody’s business, thanks to a heroic performance by one Carey Price at the height of his game. But the team’s woes, perhaps fittingly, started a week earlier with a road trip to the Golden State. It was there, on the rugged shores of San Francisco Bay, that the wildcard spot the Habs held for much of the past two months first slipped from their grasp. The West Coast swoon, a long-standing Habs’ tradition dating back to the Vinny Damphousse era, allowed both the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Bluejackets to leapfrog, games in hand, over the Habs for possession of the two wildcard spots in the Eastern Conference.

The scoring that dried up in parched California stayed dry after the Habs returned home, flustered but flush with Air Miles, from their road trip. Most concerning, the strong five-on-five play on vivid display for much of the first half of the season was suddenly lacking, the jump… gone. But after laying a goose egg against the Hawks, the Habs, perhaps sensing their playoff hopes slipping away, bounced back with three wins in five nights, the second a resounding victory against the same New York Islanders squad that just a week earlier had badly outplayed them in Brooklyn. Along the way, they regained possession of the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. That set up last Thursday’s crucial matchup against the surging Columbus Bluejackets, freshly retooled with trade-deadline acquisitions Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene for what GM Jarmo Kekäläinen had better hope is a long playoff run.  

Things did not go well, as we know. The Jackets, judging by the eyeball test, are the superior team: Nick Foligno on the fourth line… sweet Mother of Christ. The 6-2 smack-down in Columbus dropped the Canadiens out of the playoff picture, with a murderer’s row of legit Cup contenders – Winnipeg and Washington on the road, Toronto and Tampa at home – waiting in the wings to round out the season. To say that the odds are stacked against the Canadiens would be a huge understatement. But the Habs have defied the odds all season. The aforementioned teams, their playoff seedings already sewn up, could do us huge favour by resting their regulars through the final week of the season. To do so would be nothing short of a benediction (props to my friend Dan Coyle for his insight on this point).

The huge road victory over the Jets, this time in Winnipeg, showcased all that we’ve come to like about this team from Day One. Playing without catalyst Paul Byron – who placed himself in harm’s way to “own up” under a so-called “code” no one can quite explain or pinpoint in time (though I have a hunch the 1970s might be a good place to look) – the Habs utilized their speed and forecheck to defeat the powerhouse Jets for the second time in month.

They’ll have to duplicate that feat in each of their remaining games if they wish to overtake the Carolina Hurricanes or the red-hot Columbus Bluejackets. Doing so would be tantamount to an Easter miracle. The Bolts, even banged-up and playing their second game in two nights, remain a formidable opponent: It’ll be like watching the Habs travel back in time to play themselves, circa 1976.

Meanwhile, credit Marc Bergevin for tweaking his lineup ahead of the trade deadline to address a team weakness – faceoff percentage – without mortgaging future: the Habs are a strong possession team but until recently ranked only 23rd in the faceoff circle. Both Jordan Weal and Nate Thompson excel in the dot, and both have fit in nicely, with Weal in particular making plays and instantly meshing with the Canadiens’ speed game and aggressive forecheck. The Canadiens’ GM played to a team strength, in this case: in theory, at least, greater success in the dot should translate into stronger possession numbers.     

In last night’s do-or-die game against the Lightning, the Canadiens fired 45 shots at a third-string goaltender who may have played the game of his life. They held a wide edge in play against a Tampa team that dominated the regular season, by keeping them on their heels and playing with desperation.

With just a pair of games to play, on the heels of successive victories against Jets and Lightning, the cream of the crop, the Montreal Canadiens, widely expected to be among this season’s lottery teams, live to fight another day.

If you’re a fan, what’s not to love?

Habs Cling to a Playoff Berth with 20 Games to Play

Nothing says February in Montreal quite like boot-skating to the local sports bar across freeze-dried black ice thick enough to host a curling tournament, all for the chance to gather with friends over a few malt beverages and catch the Canadiens in action. And this year’s edition has made that perilous journey well worth the risk, showcasing an exciting brand of fast-paced hockey reminiscent of the Flying Frenchmen, or last season’s expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights, for those too young to remember. The Montreal Canadiens, the most decorated franchise in hockey history, a Cinderella team? I know: you can practically hear the ghosts of championships past moaning thinly in protest.  

At first, the stretch run saw the Habs pick up where they left off – on a nice little roll – to strengthen their hold on the first wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. In doing so, they continued to draw converts to the “for real” tent, particularly after they took it to the mighty Winnipeg Jets using the same tried and true recipe that’s spelled success all season long: speed to burn, a ferocious forecheck and balanced attack, much-improved defence, and world-class goaltending. The Jets, for three periods, looked like they didn’t know what hit them, with the notable exception of Connor Hellebuyck, who was peppered with 53 shots, the most faced by a Jets’ goaltender this season.

The impressive victory over the Jets set up a hotly anticipated Saturday night matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs, arguably the most exciting team in hockey, with the Habs, the league’s second-youngest team, nipping at their heels in the standings. While the Canadiens again lost to the Leafs in overtime, looking outgunned, at times, by their supremely talented opponents, they still held the edge in play and could easily have won the game.

The six-point bulge over the Hurricanes has since shrunk to a single point, while the surging Bruins and Leafs have pulled away, leaving the Canadiens, Hurricanes and Blue Jackets – and possibly the Flyers if they stay hot – to fight it out for the pair of wildcard spots in the Eastern Conference. The Habs’ road-heavy schedule won’t play in their favour, with two back-to-back sets on tap between now and March 8. But the Habs have own a winning road record this year, and they’ve been able to win clutch games at pivotal times over the course of the season: last night’s cakewalk over the Wings – perhaps the biggest must-win of the season – was a prime example.

Since Shea Weber’s return to play in early December, the Habs’ defence has been among the stingiest in the league. Victor Mete, fresh off a stint in Laval to get reacquainted with his game, may have convinced Marc Bergevin that a fishing expedition in the rental pool may not be necessary, after all. To make up for his generous size deficit, Mete is playing closer in coverage, with tight gap control and a good stick, and he uses elite-level speed and quickness – his greatest assets – to break free with clean zone exits and crisp first passes. Isn’t that what Bergevin is looking for? Next up for Mete come the offseason: a month at slapshot camp. 

In successive games against the league’s elite teams – the Jets, Leafs, Predators and (for two periods) the Lightning – the Habs again showed they can skate with anyone, and what they lack of star power they make up for by spreading the scoring evenly across the lineup, like well buttered toast. Nine Habs were in double digits, at last count, and this year, in contrast to last, the regular passengers have left the bus. And sure, while the team stands little chance of beating those elite teams in a seven-game series – assuming they do make the playoffs, which is anything but a foregone conclusion – they are trending upwards, and they’re an easy team to cheer for: in hockey, as in all team sports, speed generates excitement, and the Habs have it in spades.

There will be no tanking in Montreal as there was in Toronto, and just when you thought Marc Bergevin could not be trusted to rebuild this still-proud franchise, he’s now in contention for GM of the Year, the newest and most ridiculous trophy in hockey.  

Perhaps the short-lived Tomas Vanek experiment left the Canadiens’ GM with a case of cold feet, but his decision not to wade into the trade waters for a rental is the right one. 

Patience is the watchword in Montreal.

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.  

Habs Trending in the Right Direction near the Midseason Mark

The Montreal Canadiens closed out the first quarter of their calendar with their first losing streak of the season—a five-game skid that left the team clinging to the final wildcard spot in the hotly contested Eastern Conference and led the pundits to question whether all those preseason predictions of epic futility might finally come to pass.

Not surprisingly, the patchwork defence that held its own in the early going finally began to fray in the absence of Shea Weber, whose long-awaited return to active duty promised to restore some much-needed stability to the Habs’ beleaguered blueline. And Weber has done just that—and then some: in only his second game back after injury, the Habs’ captain notched a pair of goals to lead the Canadiens to a 5-2 victory over the New York Rangers, and he’s since brought his less-than-Christmassy on-ice demeanour to the crease area in front of Carey Price; with Man Mountain patrolling the premises, squatters setting up shop in Price’s kitchen know they’ll be made to absorb a uniquely Canadian form of corporal punishment from the best in the business.

Not too shabby for a 33-year-old shaking off a year’s worth of rust. Perhaps most impressive, there was no easing the veteran rearguard back into the lineup after the long layoff, no three-game conditioning stint in the minors. From the get-go, Weber has logged 25 minutes per game and counting—which tells you all you need to know about the man. His presence alone makes the Canadiens a better team. Is it any coincidence that Carey Price’s recent renaissance has coincided largely with Weber’s return to action?

The Habs, with Weber in uniform, went on to record their second three-game winning streak of the season until a blowout loss in Minnesota served up a richly deserved wakeup call. Still, the Montreal Canadiens, as we live and breathe, are in the hunt for a playoff berth, and rather than stay the course with his reset, Marc Bergevin must now decide whether he can add a piece or two – a top-pairing puck mover to play alongside Weber and a big body with scoring touch up front (good luck with that) – to bolster his team’s playoff chances without selling the farm.

Bubble teams like the Habs present a unique existential dilemma for GMs, who’re torn between sacrificing a piece of the future or (in Marc Bergevin’s case) sticking to what by most accounts was supposed to be a rebuild, but was carefully rebranded as a “reset.” Bergevin, by his own admission, will look instead to make creative use of the $8 million in cap space at his disposal to absorb a bad contract and add some depth to his forward group—which is the right thing to do. Because the Canadiens are not a player or two away from contention. Not yet, at least.

Another key to the Canadiens’ recent success has been the emergence of a legit fourth line led by newcomers Kenny Agostino and Michael Chaput. The two have added some 40-grit sandpaper to the lineup and allowed Claude Julien to keep his top-nine fresh. Credit AHL stalwart Agostino – who won the scoring title there as recently as 2016 – for understanding that a reduced role was his ticket back to the NHL. What he lacks in speed he makes up for with superior on-ice vision to go along with a pair of NHL-quality hands. Chaput – the swingman on the line when Nicolas Deslauriers draws in – skates like his hair’s on fire, and he’s been good in the faceoff circle and ferocious on the forecheck.

The brutal 4-0 loss to the Boston Bruins on home ice was hardly what the Habs’ coaching staff had in mind with the team set to embark on a crucial six-game road swing (with matching back-to-back and three-in-four sets against grade-A opposition) that could further strengthen their hold on a playoff spot or leave them on the outside looking in.

Three games in, and the Habs have collected four of a possible six points, including yet another come-from-behind victory, this time against a tough Las Vegas team that hadn’t lost when leading after two periods this season. In his post-game comments, Golden Knight’ bench boss Gerard Gallant said that the Canadiens were “probably the best team” to visit the T-Mobile Arena this season.

The surprises, if you’re a Habs fan, just keep coming. And barring a rash of injuries to key players, there’s no reason to believe the 2018 Canadiens won’t continue to wildly exceed expectations well into the new year. Because as this year’s roster has shown us, there’s no accounting for the intangibles – heart, team spirit and above all, leadership – that consistently defy even the most advanced metrics.

Habs Continue to Surprise at the Quarter-Season Mark

In an unexpected turn of events, the Montreal Canadiens entered the second month of the NHL calendar sporting a sterling 6-2-2 record, but looking ahead, with the Stars, Caps and Lighting all slated to visit the Bell Centre within a week, you couldn’t fault fans of the bleu-blanc-rouge for wondering whether the team’s tenure near the top of the Eastern Conference standings would end as quickly as it began. After all, Habs fans have seen this movie before: as recently as 2015, the Canadiens reeled off a team-record nine straight wins to start the season and led the Eastern Conference standings as late as the merry month of December, when the wheels fell off in the wake of a season-ending injury to Carey Price, the world’s top goaltender at the time. The following season, fans will recall, the Canadiens and a still-dominant Carey Price appeared poised to make a deep playoff run, when 220 pounds of Kris Kreider ended it all with a tootsies-first slide straight out of the Manny Machado playbook.

Price has not been the same goaltender since.

In that first week of November, the Habs only victory came against a battle-tested Washington Capitals team, in what was easily the most exciting game at the Bell Centre in recent memory. Perhaps most encouraging, they roared back from a two-goal deficit to defeat the reigning Stanley Cup champions, with the game-winner, scored by a resurgent Tie Domi, coming in the dying seconds of the game. Through the first 17-or-so games of the season, the Canadiens were among the highest-scoring teams in the Eastern Conference, on an equal footing with the arch-rival Toronto Maple Leafs. Five on five, no team has scored more goals than your Montreal Canadiens.

Even in a losing cause – the game against Tampa was a good example – the Habs continued to deploy their speed game to gain the edge in play, only to be done in by momentum-killing penalties and less-than-stellar goaltending from Carey Price. The scoring most predicted would be sadly absent has come from some unexpected sources, starting with newcomers Max Domi and (to a lesser extent) Tomas Tatar, who’ve gone about making Marc Bergevin look like the second coming of Sam Pollock. Domi, in particular, has been a revelation, showing the kind of intelligence and creativity that made him a first-round pick, with a healthy dose of the trademark Domi truculence thrown in for good measure (the Domis, surprisingly, are of Swiss stock: so much for Swiss pacifism).

Jonathan Drouin’s offensive resurgence has everything to do with Domi bringing out the best in the talented Quebecer, forcing him to elevate his play; and when Drouin plays up to his vast potential, he can be a game-breaker. His defensive awareness remains a work in progress – which is the charitable explanation – but we’ll take it provided he can put up 60-plus points a year.

The Habs’ victories have come against some A-list NHL squads, including Pittsburgh (twice), Washington and Vegas. And they’ve done it all, on most nights, with sub-par goaltending and suspect defence. If Carey Price can rediscover his game – and he’s shown signs of coming around, putting up a 43-save performance in Calgary to steal the second leg of the west coast trip – and Shea Weber returns to form, the Habs, in theory, could continue to surprise. Speaking of surprises, Jesperi Kotkaniemi has shown the hockey world he has no business playing anywhere but in the NHL, and the kid’s just scratching the surface…

One glaring sore spot in this still-young season: the still-punchless powerplay. The Habs miss a triggerman, and Weber’s imminent return will give them just that—the league’s uncontested Big Bertha from the blueline.

To put an exclamation mark on their impressive start, the Canadiens took four of a possible six points on the West Coast – where Montreal hockey hopes typically go to die – and flew home to Quebec in far better shape than anyone could have predicted. The growing sense, based on mounting evidence, is that Marc Bergevin’s reset has radically changed the complexion of the team, with the accent on tenacious puck pursuit, overwhelming speed and a balanced attack up and down the lineup. And where last season’s Canadiens folded at the first sign of adversity, this year’s Habs, to date, are the NHL’s cardiac kids, posting the league-high five come-from-behind victories.

With the crucial first quarter-season now on the books, the Montreal Canadiens are now in the conversation as one of the league’s exciting young teams. And while most would agree the future isn’t quite now, there’s a growing body of evidence, both in Montreal and through the pipeline, to suggest it might be a damned sight closer than many of us imagined.

Proving the Pundits Wrong: The Habs Start the Season Strong

No one bet the farm on the Canadiens taking three of four points from the mighty Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins to open their 2018-2019 season, it’s fair to surmise. Or that they’d build on their early-season success to string together a modest winning streak, including a second victory against the Pens that saw them overcome a 2-0 deficit to prevail 4-3 in a shootout. Yet here we are, seven games in, and the Habs, at first blush, don’t look anything like the team we grew sadly accustomed to watching last season. Suddenly, all that grim talk of another year lost has turned to whether Jesperi Kotkaniemi should stick around for more than a cup of coffee and to the team’s renewed emphasis on speed.

The key personnel changes at the top of the lineup – suddenly the Galchenyuk and Pacioretty trades don’t look so bad, after all – and behind the bench have allowed Claude Julien to finally put his stamp of this team. The buy-in, from the players, has been palpable. Armed with a richly deserved new contract, Paul Byron – incredibly – may have found an extra gear, while Claude Julien seems to have caught lighting in a bottle with the new top line of Philip Danault flanked by Brendan Gallagher and newcomer Tomas Tatar, who’s playing like he has something to prove. In all but the home opener against the Kings, the line has been dangerous on almost every shift.

If you’re a Habs fan, you’ve got to like that speed is the team’s new currency; and though it may not be sustainable come February and March – the dog days of the NHL calendar – the Canadiens appear poised to give us some entertaining hockey worth watching—something that was sadly lacking last season. The day after they skated rings around the Red Wings en route to an easy 7-3 win, Julien, in a surprising show of transparency, said that after last year’s debacle the Canadiens’ brass took a hard look at their roster and determined that the quickest path to redemption lay in building on what was already a team strength: speed.

Enter Mike Reilly, Matthew Peca and Max Domi. Next thing you know, the Habs are being hailed as one of the league’s fastest teams through the first two weeks of the season.

There will be losing streaks and plenty of time yet for Montrealers to get their collective hockey socks in a twist. Opponents will figure out (again) that the only way to slow down the Habs is to lay on the body and wear down their will to compete. That mindset is hard-wired into the L.A. Kings’ DNA, and look what they did to the Habs in the home opener: more than throw a blanket over the Canadiens in the final two periods, they sucked the air out of the Bell Centre.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder whether Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the league’s first millennial, stands to benefit from further seasoning in the AHL or the Finnish elite league. Thus far, Julien has shielded him from the tough assignments, which is all well and good, but his development may be better served playing 20-plus minutes a game in his native Finland rather than 10 minutes a night in Montreal, on a team’s not picked by any person of sound mind to sip from the Cup. With the rookie’s ten-game threshold fast approaching, it’ll be interesting to see what the Canadiens decide. Come what may, credit the kid for not looking out of place and turning what was supposed to be a foregone conclusion – a one-way ticket to Laval or Finland – into a tough decision.

For now, though, the Habs are the toast of the town, and Marc Bergevin deserves plaudits for seeing the error of his ways and embracing the league-wide trend towards speed, because it’s brought a level of excitement back to the Bell Centre and to living rooms across the city.

The Habs’ 2018-2019 Season: It’s All About the Long Game Now

“Ça sent la Coupe!” my friend exclaimed after the Habs knocked off the powerhouse Toronto Maple Leafs (read: Marlies) in a nothing pre-season affair that saw them pot an astonishing five goals in the first two periods alone. He was joking, of course, because no self-respecting hockey fan would suggest your 2018-2019 Habs will be doing much more than licking their wounds and lining up putts next April. But it never hurts to dream, and in Montreal even the narrowest sliver of hope is enough to spark early-onset Cup fever—just look at the Golden Knights!

Yet, for all the gloom and doom hanging over the organization, the 2018-2019 pre-season has served up a refreshing reminder that hockey is still a game played on the ice, and based on what we’ve seen thus far, there’s reason to believe the upcoming season won’t be the dumpster fire everyone and their aunt Ginette are predicting.

With Pacioretty and Galchenyuk now gone, the atmosphere around the team has lightened, and you get the added sense, based on the eye test, that the personnel changes have had a cleansing effect across the lineup. Throw in the new up-tempo style of play Claude Julien has rolled out and the surprisingly strong showing of Jesperi Kotkaniemi – finally a bonafide centreman! – and suddenly the future doesn’t look quite as bleak as it did just a few short months ago, at the height of the “I-never-asked-to-be-traded-Yes-you-did” soap opera starring Max Pacioretty and Marc Bergevin, with a stirring cameo from Geoff Molson.

The off-ice changes – the house-cleaning in Laval, in particular, and the hiring of Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson – are a tacit acknowledgement of the organization’s near abject failure to develop NHL-ready players during Sylvain Lefebvre’s tenure in Laval; and with another youth movement in full swing, the presence of coaches with proven player development pedigree bodes well for the organization’s ability to get the most out of their prospects.

And let’s give credit where credit is due: Bergevin hit a home run with the Pacioretty trade when he netted Suzuki and a second-round pick to go along with Tomas Tatar. The changes on defence, with what looks like the speedy Mike Rielly pencilled into the top pairing, point to an effort to get the team back to doing what they once did with the greatest of ease: move the puck in transition, and play fast.

There will be growing pains aplenty. The Habs’ inexperienced defence will be exposed and likely shredded, sliced and diced some nights. It’ll be especially painful when the team doing the handiwork is the Toronto Maple Leafs (anyone but the Leafs, I beseech thee, Lord). And with no Nicolas Deslauriers and Shea Weber there to stand up for them in the pre-Christmas segment of the calendar (in the case of Deslauriers, there’s still no word on when he’ll be back), the Canadiens’ still smallish forwards are in for a rough ride when it they line up against the likes of the Washington Capitals (who said heavy hockey is dead?) and Los Angeles Kings.

But for the first time a quarter-century, there’s hope on the horizon, particularly at the center position, and it starts with the kids—with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and, waiting in the wings, Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki, and the second-wave prospects not far behind. The future is in their hands. And while Habs fans will have to wait a few years before the prospect pool makes an impact at and beyond the Bell Centre, the kids, led by Kotkaniemi, have generated a buzz not seen in Montreal since P.K. Subban last sported a Habs jersey.