It's amazing how quickly the outlook on a season can change.
Heading into Saturday night's clash with the Chicago Blackhawks, frustration with the 2013-14 Habs was boiling over. The Habs were hopeless, and whether or not Michel Therrien and Marc Bergevin would sink this promising franchise was mostly a question of this season or next.
Then, the Canadiens went out and played their best game of the year. They outscored the Blackhawks, yes, but more importantly, they played a complete game and deserved to beat one of the league's best team. They carried the flow of the play, more or less shut down their opponent's most dangerous weapons, and iced a roster without any particularly egregious weak links. Considering the frequency with which this talented team has accomplished these objectives, Saturday's game was a breath of fresh air.
Being a Canadiens fan, however, becomes a little more difficult. The emotions surrounding the team were simple and straightforward before, and now they're more complex. It's not hard to find your place on the spectrum of frustration to disappointment. Now, reserved optimism and cautious analysis of the team's most encouraging victory of the season dominate instead.
So, can the Habs use their Chicago victory to catapult themselves toward the expectations that accompanied the opening of this NHL season?
The things that made them successful against a great team will carry through to this evening. Tomas Plekanec and his linemates are capable of smothering even the most potent scorers, as he showed on Saturday. Tonight, Jaromir Jagr, Dainius Zubrus, and Travis Zajac will be his likely assignment.
Backing up Plekanec against the Devils' best will be P.K. Subban, the Canadiens best offensive and defensive player. P.K. was absolutely glued to the speedy and strong Jonathan Toews against the Hawks, and given Jagr's role as NJ's most consistent scorer, P.K will likely have a similar task this evening.
Finally, the Canadiens were able to overcome Chicago despite suffering one of Max Pacioretty's less inspiring efforts. As noted yesterday's introductory top 25 under 25 post, Pacioretty is one of the league's most dominant even strength forwards. Count on him bouncing back, and looking to add to his five career goals against the Devils this evening.
Of course, the Canadiens have the same flaws that have got them to this point, as well. Endearing and persistent as he is, George Parros still occupies a roster spot at the expense of a player like Louis Leblanc. There's something to be said for not messing with the chemistry that has led to the Hamilton Bulldogs' recent success, but there are also a number of players on that team who could contribute at the NHL level and benefit from the experience.
The Habs are also still short a real NHL defenceman. Kudos to Douglas Murray for what was perhaps his best game of his Montreal career, but the fact remains that he's not capable of playing competent NHL hockey on a nightly basis. The Devils are Montreal-like when it comes to even strength scoring, and the bottom six of their forward corps is nearly devoid of scoring talent. Nonetheless, the thought of Reid Boucher bearing down on the slow-footed Swede is a stressor that simply should not exist.
Finally, and most concerning, are the Habs systems. The Canadiens, for the first time in what feels like forever, the Habs looked like the fast, aggressive team we expect them to be. Regrettably, I don't have the evidence in front of me, though my recollection of the game tells me that the Habs were able to enter the offensive zone and sustain pressure in a manner they have not in some time. It's been demonstrated that the dump and chase approach is disadvantageous, but with the Habs personnel, it's doubly so. Playing to their strengths may be the most important adjustment the Habs could consider making. It may also be their best hope of justifying the optimism that pervades the minds of Habs fans.
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