Last night's tight 2-1 win over the Bruins wasn't quite boredom personified as it was a chess game of patience and piece fitting. For 60 minutes, the Habs rarely lost their heads or their composure. Fans would be well advised to become used to this dullness, because the action in games created by past mistakes from teams of recent years may well be a thing of the past.
Watching this game, I couldn't help notice these changes. This year's team is different from the 2006-07 edition in that it panics less and has more focus. While it may often leave fans dry for excitement - 2 points is 2 points. Wins are not graded for style!
Rather than a post game analysis for last night's contest, I thought I'd break down 10 points on the Habs this season that have so far warmed my heart. These factors are generally in comparison to last season's team and the rollercoaster ride that ultimately led to them missing the post season by one meagre win.
Grit To Spare:
Names first. Begin, Kostopoulos, Smolinski, Chipchura, and Dandeneault, are as a group a way more effective web for opponants to tangle with. Only Begin remains from last season's forwards in the "pain in the derriere" role, but the other 4 are upgrades from the Bonk - Johnson method of positional poise. This assembly of third and fourth liners is a more relentless tank. The flip flopping of Dandeneault and Streit in similar roles pays off in adding better experience to both ends. Where last season chompers bit with gums, this years nags bring teeth with attitude.
Through 15 games, Kovalev's rededication to the team concept has yet to falter. Simply put, the man has been earning every dollar paid to him so far in bringing the goods forth. He leads the team in goals and is on pace to net close to 40. Word is that he went over game films of his play last season with a fine tooth comb to learn where he went wrong. This season, he is playing with more focus and gelling with Plekanec as his centre. Perhaps all that was wrong with him last season was being paired with a dead weight named Samsonov.
The Anti - Aebischer:
Carey Price is so calm he is almost lucid. Like Mike Boone suggested, he truly is the anti - Aebischer. Where last season's backup faced pressure as though he had unpinned grenades in his pockets, Price deflects every distraction as though they did not exist. It is an upgrade that should allow the team to win an additional 10 games this season.
Second Line Support:
Kovalev, Plekanec, and Kostitsyn are a cohesive second line where the Canadiens did not have one last year. When Koivu's trio are shutout from the score sheet, this combo can step it up and help win games. The youngsters are helping to keep the rejuvenated Kovalev interested, and it all parlays itself into secondary support that went absent last season. In tight games, this second line will often be the difference between winning games normally lost last season. This facet of the team restores order to all that was wrong with last year's crew. No one has to exceed their roles when the second line clicks.
Better Line Matching:
With the multi - usefullness of players such as Smolinski, Begin, and Kostopoulos, coach Carbonneau can size up and measure against opponants with more confidence. Precise tasks are handed out with doubtless focus and the players are responding positively. The fact that Carbonneau has players that can slip into different, yet familar roles, helps him counter rapidly changing game flows better than he could have last season.
Having every player know their role, affects a greater sense of job duty and distinction. This is especially true when all the parts fit and perform as they should. Most of the team's losses so far in have been by a one goal margin, and that testifies to a lack of panic and a focus on a game plan. This team, perhaps due to veteran experience, simply doesn't panic where last season's team came unravelled.
A Hammer Impacts More Than A Chisel:
Last year the Canadiens won many games thanks to a Sheldon Souray focused powerplay that brought the team from behind when slow starts and a lack of discipline got them in trouble. This season, players have tended to look less like headless chickens. Bad penalties are down while a certain calmness has been restored. Credit much of this to the solid and often unnoticed Roman Hamrlik, who will never be the mistake in another team's highlight reel. This season, the team does not chip away at other teams leads, it seeks to contain its own.
An Unquestioned Coach:
Second guessing the Habs bench boss has been a decade long ritual in Montreal that is about to fade as Guy Carbonneau has been given the proper elements to guide the team with. His line matching is working, simply because he has more to work with and knows how to use it. Players know their roles better this season, and Carbonneau's job so far has consisted more of managing the pieces as opposed to square pegging them into round slots where they did not previously fit last season. Not having to use Sergei Samsonov on a checking line hardly impairs his team concept.
Of course, having young players consistantly progress, eases many concerns. The further development of players such as Plekanec, Komisarek, Kostitsyn, and Higgins are equal to making trades that benefit the team. As these individual upgrades continue, the Canadiens are grooming winners from within. When this team wins a Stanley Cup, the whole of the smarts of this organization's plan will come under the microscope as a model for many NHL teams to follow.
Taken as a whole, gains made add up to a team with more faith in itself. Players have more faith in the coaches perspective, and coaches are more assured in assigning roles that counter opponants. When wins accumulate as they have, team bonds strengthen. We are watching this occur right now, and it goes a long way towards explaining why the Habs are chasing the top teams rather than looking over their shoulders.