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Canadiens Kids About To Hit Their Stride

Just beyond the halfway point in the season, fans can begin to sort out the pretenders from the contenders in the NHL, and see which teams are for real in the hunt for playoff spots and the Stanley Cup pursuit.

It is the time of the season where teams that have their acts together begin to solidify their standing among the league's better teams. Usually this means that teams on winning streaks are heading down the right road, whereas teams still in search of themselves aren't likely to solve their issues in time to resurrect dimming hopes.

Unless we are speaking of the well oiled machine known as the Detroit Red Wings, it could be stated that pretty much every team still has kinks to iron out and facets of their games to work on. Even the sometimes seemingly indestructable Ottawa Senators have their concerns.

In all this, our Montreal Canadiens have had their rough patches for sure, but appear to be headed in the right direction at the right time.

While it is sometimes difficult to assess the Habs in this era of what TSN's Bob McKenzie aptly terms "manufactured parity", one must remember that it should be against the remainder of the league that the Canadiens should be more logically compared with, rather than measured against it's own imposing historical stature.

I state this primarily because it is the main dilema I constantly face in determining how the team is shaping up.

I have learned that measuring the Habs against themselves is pretty much a losing proposition. I mean, how can the team at present possibly compete in the game of comparisons against the likes of any of it's former editions beyond the exception of the 1986 or 1993 Cup winning teams.
Fans my age, 45, or older, are both blessed and cursed by vivid recollections of teams so soundly build they had nary a flaw. Fans in their 30's or younger know the history and may be impatient to understand what it all feels like to experience their team putting it all together and going over the top.

What it adds up to, is that the perceptions of how the team is faring is divided and yanked by those two polar connundrums. There likely will never be a unified consensus until there is a parade.

Taking all that into consideration, perhaps you would agree that for now, it is best to look at how the Canadien fare in regards to the league they are in and playing against at present.

As it stands, the Canadiens are looking good, having lost just once in regulation in their last 10 games - 4-1 on December 23 in Dallas. They have gained points via wins and overtime losses in 9 of those 10 games, accumulating 15 of 20 possible points. This latest streak comes on the heels of their roughest patch wherin the answers to their woes looked to be beyond comprehensible solutions. Since then, the team has regrouped, lines and roles have been shuffled, and a winning formula has emerged.

There are many points to suggest that the Canadiens are presently hitting their stride and beginning to carve out an identity. While there remains great work to accomplish, it can be said that this team, one of the younger clubs in the NHL, is on the brink of better days.

It's biggest concern at present is the necessity of converting a strong road game into home ice success. Coach Guy Carbonneau put it best when saying that the reverse is much worse, and that a team that wins on the road merely needs to apply a similar focus at home. Teams that lose on the road simply are not blessed with the same elements and are missing much more than simple focus.

The plusses have begun to outnumber to worries of late, and the Habs have seemed to put certain flaws behind them. As they headed out on the road for a six game stretch over the holidays, it was established that the team needed points through this most crucial time of year. When they returned home confident from having bagged 8 points of the available 12, it placed a proper perspective on what the players felt they could be capable of. Back at home for a few games, the Canadiens have pointed in all contests since.

Through that time, the team has blossomed offensively, perhaps to their own surprise, and now find themselves the third highest scoring team in the league.

And you betcha, I'm shaking my head at that notion as well!

It's no mean feat for this young crew, and inside it all, the most important thing might be to keep the players feet on the ground.

Stop and think about it for a second - one of the youngest squads in the league is now one of it's highest scoring!

There is no better fact that can stand as a more solid testimony to what this team could build into than this. When it simultaneously becomes one of it's tighter teams defensively, it will finally aspire legitimately to the Stanley Cup.

A past grumble is that the Canadiens were suspect in 5 on 5 play and that winning was mainly achieved via their killer powerplay. Of late they seem to have rectified this by lining up three lines capable of putting the puck in the net. In doing so, they have also witnessed the emergence of what looks to be a proper number one line - Kovalev, Plekanec, and Kostitsyn - who have been on a better than a point per game tear for almost 20 games now. It's not a moment too late.

The fact that the Habs have become sounder at even strength points to a collective conscience brought on by experience and aquired and carried out responsibilities. It should soon translate into a better penalty kill as well. For all the team's visible improvements, the kill is one facet of their game that has taken backsteps. What is assuring to some extent, is that the team has the elements and the coaching staff to correct this as it matures.

Having a spread out attack with a projected 6 or 7 possible 20 goal scorers is a great asset. Many opponants aren't geared with the depth to shut down so many threats. Not having a 50 goal man in the lineup might concern some fans who feel we need an identified gamebreaker to go all the way, but the reality is quite contrary, as many teams have hoisted that mug we're after without one. Any team worth it's salt can shut down that identified sniper come playoff time. It's a whole other deal to snuff out three lines that could beat you on any given night.
Even more invigourating is the thought of how much better this team will become. Most of it's building blocks are hitting their strides individually as well. While the young are flourishing, the team elders are bringing consistency and leadership to the fore.

I can't write another sentence without pausing to mention that Alex Kovalev is a big reason for much of the good going on. His resurgence mirrors the team's collective blooming. It has been as exhilerating to watch him this season as it was painful to witness him grind himself into the ice last year in search of a decent shift. Kudos to Kovy for showing what he is made of.

From the net out, the Habs are being built to last.

It starts with the recently Hamilton stinted Carey Price, who has shown enough in his first 20 NHL to explain what all the fuss has been about. While he has faltered some of late requiring some fine tuning, he has been treated as an investment of the highest worth. No need to worry in his case.

Ahead of Price remains Cristobal Huet, who continues to maintain both a low GAA and high save percentage. He deserved another all star game nod for sure. The emergence of Price and all the future goalie talk with it have masked the fact that Huet remains the goalie of the here and now and imminent future.

The Canadiens defense will improve with confidence and time. Built upon rocks such as Andrei Markov, Roman Hamrlik, and Mike Komisarek, the remaining pieces are a collection of interchangable variables that don't have the same longevity written all over them. Markov and Komisarek are coming into their own before our eyes, with Markov about to trek off to an All Star appearence where he has been voted onto the starting lineup. Want a defenseman that leads the league in hits and shots blocked? We got him in Komisarek. Both players, doubt it not, can get even better. Hamrlik has been exactly the type of added experience and veteran poise the team needed to add to settle other elements down.

Filling out the backline corps are a defense by committee group that can suit various needs and comply with particular opponants. Mark Streit is the most interesting of the lot, as he is as adept at forward and the powerplay point as well. Not a mean competitor, Streit's value is that of an experienced pinch hitter or a chess piece that can quickly be shifted around no matter what is asked of him. Ryan O'Byrne has only been up for a short time, but the promise of his size, reach, and presence bode well for his future. He may never reach top four status, but what he can offer in the upside can be of great usefullness on a team still lacking in overall size. Josh Gorges is a player still in the works. He is having difficulty prospering as a player on the fringe, never quite knowing if his play is sturdy enough to keep him dressed. Once, and if, he overcomes this, we will have a much better clue as to what he can bring down the line. Francis Bouillon, always a fan favorite, remains a part that will, one day soon enough, be replaced. Playing big for a small but physical man has its undeniable limitations. His heart is always welcome, but he will never be more than what he is now. Patrice Brisebois brings experience, and that remains the best and most polite thing that can be said about him.

Up front is where the Habs make fans salivate most. With three lines of potential fire power, and youthful at that, this is where the team is growing fastest and best.

Tomas Plekanec has surprised and has become the team's number one center. He is 20 points ahead of his pace of last year, when he had a killer second half. He is on target for a 70 point plus season should his excellent play continue. Where it gets interesting with him, is that he brings a certain level of defensive awareness that can compensate for the adventuressness his wingers sometimes employ. His transition instincts are second to none on the team. He is only going to get better, and we are watching it happen right now.

Andrei Kostitsyn is in full bloom and has been a revelation. Sat out earlier in the season for concentration issues and indifferent play, he has since learned to use all of his vast toolbox of skill to the best of his ability. He can be the first forward on the puck pursuit and turn a play with a solid hit, he can pass with uncanny vision, and he can rifle the puck in and out of traffic with great proficiency. Each game, one gets the sense that we've only seen but glimpses of what will one day be quite an astounding talent.

The reborn Alex Kovalev is inspiring. In his early thirties, could it be that Kovalev has put all his focus and talent together at last? Watching him create on ice nightly, it gives the impression that his head is already in the playoffs. Having a player as explosive on the team, who can crank it up several notches in split seconds and make opponants shudder, is a weapon the Habs have long sought. Keeping him motivated is the key, and attaching the duty of big brother to the younger European players on the team should enable that for some time.

Captain Saku Koivu has slowed down some. After so many trials and tribulations, it is understandable to some extent. Still, on a given night, he can be inspiring, but it is the slight drop in his level of consistency that is cause for some concern. Nonetheless, he continues to lead the team in assists despite having had almost every winger on the team as a linemate at one time or another. The emergence of the Plekanec line as a bona fide top trio may actually help in getting more out of him in the long run. Considering that he is currently centering a pair of propering 20 year olds and still at his usual near point per game pace is reassuring. There can be justified doubt in whether it will he who first hoists that Cup we're after when the time comes, as he may be one element the team casts off in order to improve along that point. I'd rather it be done with him for sentimental reasons, but if the flipside is sacrificing him to achieve this, it then becomes the right thing to do despite what hearts suggest.

Remembering that Guillaume Latendresse got off to the most sluggish of starts this season, it is quite astonishing to see him as the fourth best goal scorer on the team at the midway point. Already only four goals off last year's totals, he has used his most obvious gifts to get there. Latendresse may always have issue with reading the neutral zone ebb and flow, but as long as his size is used in both ends and he knows the slot is his best friend, he will develop into a game breaker for the Habs. What is often underestimated in his evaluation is the committment he brings towards improving himself. Guillaume is more mature that his age suggests and rebounds well from off games. With the right center at the right time, I still see John Leclair with a hero's smile on his face in a big game.

Sergei Kostitsyn has been a pleasant addition to the lineup. Loaded with an abundance of talent, no one predicted he'd be in the picture so soon. While he will learn with his mistakes exposed, he is an experiment worth fast tracking. What has been most revealing in his case, is his willingness to dirty his face in elbows and high sticks in order to come up with the puck. Seeing a green horn go behind his own net to throw a hit has a certain effect in sending messages to his teammates. It will take him awhile to make pace adjustments as he is practically fresh out of junior, but inside a year he will be another addition to the list of 20 goal scorers on the team.

Chris Higgins is a dog, a determined and pursuant winner that rarely quits or gives an inch. With leadership written all over him, he has displayed the honesty needed when the team falters and a righting of perspective when it wins. He has cranked his intensity up a notch or two this season, working noticibly harder when his luck runs out around the net. Despite producing well enough to deserve top line status, it is a credit to his team goals and vision that he never winced when given new linemates. All Higgins did was to keep on giving his last drip of sweat. That's a trait of his we will be enjoying and admiring for years.

Michael Ryder has been snakebitten like no one Habs player since Sergei Zholtok turned a 26 goal season into a 1 goal in 32 game start in 2001. It is evident that Ryder has been more focused defensively than before, but he has been confounded to realize that it has come at the expense of his goal stats. He could rebound just as well as he could disappear. He would be advised to try to perfect some new tricks. The final stretch of the schedule will be telling in his case. The good news is he seems to have come around some of late, having possibly found a more comfortable niche with Higgins and Maxim Lapierre.

Maxim Lapierre likely didn't know what hit him when he was sent back to Hamilton to start the season. Having made the Canadiens last year and then heading back to the Bulldogs as a vital chink in their Calder Cup win, he was guilty of taking it easy and paid the price. Not that many people saw it this way at the time, but this is one good example of how Bob Gainey seeks to build character within a player who wears too much comfort too soon. It may be what is occuring at present with Price and Chipchura. Lapierre may have quietly spit fire, but he endeavoured to earn his way back at the first opportunity. When he returned to Montreal, his edge was welcomed back, and he has progressed with his icetime to give the Canadiens more speed and depth on the two bottom lines.

The Canadiens fourth line includes several shifting participants asked to fullfill particular roles from shut down specialists to sparkplugs when the team goes soft. The experienced Begin, Dandeneault, Smolinski and Tom Kostopoulos are interchangable parts that are able to make a difference in games. Their energy and leadership are valuable, but in the end it is not on their backs that the next championship will be built. Those tasks will fall to players such as Kyle Chipchura and others players that will push them out.

Over the last three or four seasons, the Canadiens have churned out talent quickly, adding small groups of rookies each year. The trend will maintain itself as the likes of D'Agnostini, Yemelin, Valentenko, Pacioretty, McDonagh, Fisher, Maxwell, White and other numerous prospects push up like daiseys to join the remnants of the curent lineup for years to come.

Before the season began, so called hockey experts called for the Canadiens to occupy the position presently held by the Maple Leafs. We laughed at the prediction, while maybe secretly worrying about regressing some before advancing. Initially, making the playoffs were the aim of the team, but with this lineup playing as it is now, I feel that anything less than a second round participation would be disappointing. I might even be tempted to state that this team is good enough to win two series, but time will tell.

The best part is watching this all evolve one game at a time when the fun is just beginning.