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Habs Have Critics Eating Crow

It doesn't yet seem that long ago that the Canadiens, according to the pre-season experts, where headed for 13th place in the east?

Time flies when you're having fun, right?

If you are a frog, then time's fun when you're having flies!*

Along those lines, if you haven't noticed, those same experts and critics are beginning to eat small servings of uncooked crow in light of the Habs outstanding first half of the 2007-08 campaign.

For many who don't follow the Canadiens, there is a resolved sigh that is sounding a heck of lot like a collective "Who knew?"

This weekend, during the All Star break, I found a good half dozen pieces related to the Canadiens being the surprise team of the season so far.

Now I'm not surprised that the Toronto based media are surprised. They are annually too focused on their own soap opera to gaze elsewhere long enough to get the big picture in Montreal. The higher paid NHL analysts are paid so to focus on 30 teams and not one, so they settle for the consensus thinking about the overall feeling about the Canadiens and never delve any deeper. It's like a tradition.

Even Montreal's own media were split down the middle in their gauging of the team this season. Some suggested the Habs had too many question marks to make the post season, while others said there was a glimmer of hope for eighth place. Of course in the Montreal media, if one scribe suggests the sky is blue, a disagreement will sell papers.

The most optimistic previews came from the fans that know the team best. They figured that last year's best moments weren't illusions and that a team with so much going for it at times could not simply suffer a similar fate. Many, including myself, pointed to the flu bug that ravaged the team as being the main culprit in causing a playoff bound team to sink. One small victory, after all, would have been the difference in what would have been perceived as a successful season.

So where did all the pre-season doom and gloom come from?

It was several factors that had the naysayers baying at the moon. There was the question of replacing Sheldon Souray's power play prowess, the question about how Montreal would deal with the disruptive Alex Kovalev, the question of whether Guy Carbonneau would have the players confidence, the lack of a top line pivot, and the suspect goaltending of Cristobal Huet.

What many failed to seize in hindsight, was that these were hardly the main issues in the grand scope of things.

For myself, the key to the season would be the play of the youngsters and the experience they would be gaining. They alone, would hold much of the team's fate in their hands.

I reasoned that the departure of Souray's efficiency on offense would be offset by the exit of his defiencies on defense, and the arrival of a solid Roman Hamrlik. I didn't expect the Habs to maintain the top powerplay, but we now know that Souray was more the finisher than he was the creator of that killer unit.

Kovalev I wanted gone. I was ready to build the plank to push him off it. He remains the main reason for last season's deception and had he just shown up for a few more games everything might have been different. This season has seen a full transformation of spirit in Kovalev. He's gone from the litter box to the penthouse, and turned himself into the leader the team needs.

The off season predictions, again including mine, didn't grasp that Kovalev couldn't sink so low a second season running. It was his inner pride and a few good chats with Bob Gainey that seem to have made the difference.

Guy Carbonneau's situation didn't rattle me at all. He was a rookie coach, supposed to make mistakes and then learn from them. I found everyone to be impatient with him, from the fans themselves to the media hungry for stories with juicy angles. His learning curve combined with the youth movement were positives in my eyes.

I felt the lack of a top line center in theory, would be offset by team depth. My reasoning was that if Saku Koivu was able to bring his usual numbers, and Tomas Plekanec continued to improve as he did in the last year's dreadful second half, the team wouldn't miss that center so few teams give up on.

It was difficult to evaluate Huet harshly, as he never truly had time to recover from his injury before he was thrust into last year's do or die game. It was one game that left a bitter aftertaste. He started well last season, had some road bumps where the whole of the team was on a rocky road, but rarely played behind a poised defense after Christmas. Figuring that he is a solid team citizen and extremely level headed, Huet would dependable even if he didn't quite find the form he had when he stole Jose Theodore's job two season's ago.

Added all up, I felt that if the team improved just slightly and the virus and Kovalev disasters didn't reoccur, then the Canadiens were essentially a team better by a position or two. I tagged them for a fifth to seventh place finish.

I reserved my optimism that if everything went right, they could shoot higher. I also crossed my fingers that everything wouldn't go wrong - again!

So far, so good....and now for the crow.

It surely had to be the Canadiens stunning comeback against New Jersey that has made critics stand up and take notice. Hey, it even made fans shake their heads some. With the All Star break acting as a pause for thought, many scribes took to weighing in Les Reborn Glorieux.

The first crow eater I found was the usually sensible Pierre LeBrun of CP. He'd predicted the Canadiens on the outside looking in come April, but still had an appreciation for what Bob Gainey was building. He says:

"Raise your hands all you die-hard hockey fans, those of you who picked the Montreal Canadiens to have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference at the NHL all-star break.

Yeah, thought so. Don't feel bad, yours truly picked them to outright miss the playoffs in my pre-season predictions.

While I liked what I saw from GM Bob Gainey in terms of his young and rebuilding core, I still thought they were another year away from blossoming. I was wrong, like many of you.The 2007-08 edition of the Habs are one of the best surprises of the season.... home ice at the Bell Centre in the first round? Bring the ear plugs.

There is still lots of hockey left, however, and given their second-half collapse of last season, the Canadiens still have lots to prove before we're totally convinced they're for real. But all they can do is continue to pass tests like the one Thursday night, when they rallied for a 4-3 win at New Jersey. The Habs were down 3-1 entering the third period in New Jersey, otherwise known as Death Valley given the Devils' amazing defensive abilities. But Montreal outshot the stunned hosts 20-3 in the third period en route to three unanswered goals and a big-time emotional victory.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Montreal's success so far this season is that last year's top forward line of Higgins-Koivu-Ryder is not carrying the load offensively. In fact, they've been broken up for most of the season after a tough start before being reunited just before the break. Ryder has downright struggled while Higgins and Koivu have had good stretches mixed with average ones.

Plekanec, quite frankly, is now the best centre in Montreal even if nobody wants to say it. Kostitsyn has been on a point-a-game pace for nearly two months while Kovalev, well, he's been simply awesome."

Pierre Maguire of TSN, still misses the genuine points when talking about Montreal. In between periods of the All Star game, Maguire ranked the Habs as the surprise of the season to him, which should come as no surprise to anyone who gets how little Maguire gets the Habs. In different times he's said that the Canadiens couldn't win with Souray, and wouldn't win without him once he left.

On his TSN blip, which you can hear here, the lippy one suggested that the Canadiens are no longer the Flying Frenchman (welcome to 1998, Pierre!) and that they were now the Eastern Block. How deep!

Maguire suggested that it was the play of players the likes of Plekanec, Markov, Kovalev, and the Kostitsyn brothers that were making things smooth in Montreal. He named the coaching staff without saying anything of substance about them but called the Canadiens "the fastest team in the East".

Maguire says the Habs could catch the Senators!

Former Habs coach Jacques Demers, who placed the team 8th in a pre-season poll, says that he is being asked by fellow journalists across the four corners of American about the Habs resurgace. He was in Atlanta on the weekend, and has this to say:

"I must have given a dozen interviews and they're all inquiring about what's up with Guy Carbonneau's team. People are impressed with the progression the team has made. One thing that has changed our peoples tones. They're no longer mocking the team, they are louding it.

"During the All Stars practice, I spoke with two General Managers and two writers, and in their opinion the Canadiens were the surprise team of the year so far. For them, Guy Carbonneau is the number one candidate for Coach of The Year.

"Now the five dollar question on everybody's lips is: Are the playoffs in the bag? Even though it is only January 27, I'll go on record without hesitation that the Canadiens will be in the springtime dance. For all the reasons mentioned prior, but mainly due to how they beat New Jersey.

The Gazette's Red Fisher was cautiously optimistic when the season began, saying the team was filled with question marks as well. Today, he too, is sensing a turning of the tide.

"There's still (sigh) a lot of hockey to be played, but the biggest surprise of all - and I kid you not - could be your Canadiens being one of only five teams sitting with 60 points or more at this hiccup in the season, the others being the Red Wings, Senators, Dallas and Anaheim. Furthermore, the Stars and Ducks have played four and three more games, respectively.

You don't sit No. 4 by divine right in the Eastern Conference as the Canadiens do - with more points than the No. 2 Flyers and No. 3 Hurricanes.

A lot of good things have to happen, such as Alex Kovalev finding his long-overdue game and Tomas Plekanec only five points short of matching his 47 of a year ago. Andrei Markov is a starter in tomorrow's All-Star Game. Mike Komisarek has become one of the team's leaders. Andrei Kostitsyn is a rising star. So is Christopher Higgins. Cristobal Huet has been getting it done in the nets.

Add this: love him or hate him, the biggest improvement thus far has come from behind the bench. It's been a learning process for Guy Carbonneau, but he's showing every sign of being in control of this team. He's grown with the job in his second season as head coach. He's still pushing his players and, as you'd expect, some of them don't like it, but they now know he's in charge. They realize he's the guy making the decisions, and for that Carbo has their respect.

Le Journal's Marc De Foy writes about the players opening up to the possibility of Montreal finishing first in the East, while counterpart Bertrand Raymond chooses caution in regards to what occured last season.

Raymond, who admits to ''not seeing any way they could finish higher than 11th" in October, now says "I prefer to wait a little longer to say whether they will make the playoffs. It's not that I am not impressed by what I'm seeing, it's just based on what happened last year."

Expect Raymond to get on board sometime around March 30th!

At least he's consistant, and hasn't pulled the shameless about face that TSN has. They were quite sure that the Habs had no chance at all of making the playoffs, but now talk of our Canadiens as one of four Canadien teams with Stanley Cup aspirations.

That's a little ways over the top for this time of the season.

Typically, the piece is credited to TSN Staff. How gutless!

The network does caution the Habs still have certain issues to work on, but not before jumping on the bandwagon of sorts, suggesting almost everything is beautiful in Montreal. Their assessment still seems somewhat distant.

The team still has 33 games left in the season, but sophomore head coach Guy Carbonneau has his squad sitting pretty in fourth place with 60 points.

A big reason for their improvement is the play of their youngsters. Chris Higgins, the Kostitsyn brothers and Maxim Lapierre have made significant contributions on the scoreboard while establishing Montreal as one of the fastest team - if not the fastest team - in the conference.

Another factor to their success is their improved transitional game. With Sheldon Souray's minus 28 gone and the solid shutdown unit of Mike Komisarek, Andrei Markov, and Roman Hamrlik, the Habs have fared much better at moving the puck out of their zone.

While the team's top line at the start of the season was Higgins, Saku Koivu and Michael Ryder, it's the trio of Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn, and Alex Kovalev that has been giving the opposition fits almost every night. Kovalev won't get much consideration for MVP compared to some of the league's other headliners, but some recognition as the most improved player would certainly suffice. Last season, the veteran winger tallied just 47 points, carried disatisfied winger Sergei Samsonov on and off the ice, and reportedly complaining to newspapers back home. This year has been a complete 180 degree turn. Not only is he the team's most explosive and productive player, he's also been a mentor to his younger teammates.

A few housekeeping matters have to be addressed if this team wants any chance of a shot at a 'Drive For 25.' If Ryder (barring a trade near the deadline) is sticking around for the duration of the year, he obviously has to improve on his goal production. The team could also do better at faceoffs (23rd in the NHL) and penalty killing (21st), which is a head scratcher when you consider Carbonneau, Muller, and Jarvis - great two way players - coaching behind the bench.

My thinking still has not changed. I see the Habs anywhere from 5th to 7th, with hopes permitted.

One big thing that has changed is how Montreal has gone about getting their 60 points. Last season, the Canadiens led the NHL in games won coming from behind in the third period. Some call that character.

This season, the Habs have done that all of once. I prefer this type of character.

The Canadiens are getting the lead in games, and holding it. It's much preferable.

Now can they can the Senators for first place in the East?

Of course they could!

Now what are the odds of Ottawa falling down enough, and Montreal rising that high simultaneously.

All I need is a continuation of what progression I've seen so far to keep me happy.

That and a playoff lottery ticket on a team coached by a participant to the 1986 and 1993 surprises!

*(This is not a slur, it's a food chain analogy/pun, folks!)