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Despite Strong Start, Habs Still A Work In Progress

After the Canadiens have earned 5 of a possible 6 points in their first three games, fans do get so inclined to begin seeing things through rose coloured glasses. It's easy to understand that tendency of course, after going undefeated in regulation time in three road games.

Seeing a promising debut by goalie Carey Price, it's only natural to start getting overzealous, but it might be time for a little calm before the Hurricane's storm.

While the positive spins are numerous at this stage of the teams evolution, it is important not to lose focus of some issues concerning the team.

On the plus side of things, the Canadiens appear to be a team that is prepared to play each game with the same intensity and desperation they showed down the stretch last season. It looks, for now, as if they can compete with any team - until proven otherwise.

Tonight's contest against the Hurricanes and the October 18th game versus the Senators will be benchmark games for the team and coach Guy Carbonneau will spend much time drilling this notion into the Habs players collective cranium.

These games might also serve as a reality check and place the team in a proper perspective. Taken in an appropriate context, the lessons about to be learned can only be a good thing.

So far, what the team has gone about doing well on the road, consists of playing a more even mannered game. Their five on five play seems improved as all four lines have provided more tenacity on the forecheck thanks to a less adventurous defense. Positional play as a team helps greatly, and their seems to a better communication and understanding all around between players on the ice and the coaches delivering the motto.

Surprisingly, the power play still has some oomph, thanks to the passing skills of Alex Kovalev, Andrei Markov and Mark Streit, and to the grittiness of Chris Higgins and Saku Koivu. The second unit has been almost as sharp. Time will only help gel what is now being worked out.

Goaltending remains a strength, and is likely more solid than last season, where it cost the Canadiens precious points in January and early February.

A strong fourth line has served the team well on the road, where coach Carbonneau was allowed to match lines better than imagined due to that contribution.

These are all good points to build upon but it's far from the whole story.

Where the Canadiens could run into trouble is with it's still very volatile defense. I'm not yet convinced that the likes of Patrice Brisebois, Francis Bouillon, Josh Gorges and Streit are up to par. Against certain teams, their lack of muscle will not be their undoing, but against the top teams, this weakness will exposed like an open wound in saltwater. The key for this group will be to improve their jump on the puck and their positional poise. A gauge on what this group is achieving as a unit are shots on goal. Keeping opposing teams under 25 is the target.

Overall, the Canadiens are a fast skating team with the puck who still need to learn to translate that quickness into it's defensive quirks. The fact that they often do not keep pace with their rivals parlays itself into the amount of penalties taken each game. Cutting down on the needless calls and those brought upon by defensive indiscipline are the major sticking point in the team's growth at present.

Montreal is above average in the penalty killing department, but spending so much time at it hurts the rolling of lines which tends to neuter it's offense. One of their more pressing issues concerns secondary scoring. In any given game, there is always one line rolling at a regular clip instead of two or more.

Given that Carbonneau employs all four lines to counter opposing team's changes, few forwards hit the 20 minute mark in time on ice during games. Players nearing that total are employed on both specialty units, but ideally the minutes per line should near 17, 16, 15, and 12 from top to bottom. With all players getting their time, and feeling "into the game", the coach is liberated to focus on his lines work rather than juggling to suit the latest curve thrown into his plans.

Confidence playing with a late game lead comes with experience. So far the Habs have shown inadequacies in completely shutting teams down in the third period. Perhaps it's simply a road thing, where Carbonneau can breathe easier with the last change on home ice. Some instruction is needed for certain players too willing to open it open when caution is the order.

Each trouble spot the Canadiens are enduring has it's shared consequences and each solution endeavors team growth. Should the Habs cut down on taking penalties, the secondary scoring should kick in. Should the players learn to skate full out for sixty minutes, those calls should diminish. Understanding how to accomplish this could lead to the team enjoying the lead earlier in games, and perhaps larger goal spreads later in games.

It's all work on the road to maturity and team identity.