The Montreal Canadiens have finally....at long last....after a decade plus mired in futility....reached the summit of first place in the Eastern Conference!
Now to split hairs of course, yes they share that podium as they are currently tied with the Ottawa Senators, who have a game in hand and more wins, so technically speaking we are not talking about a comfortable stranglehold perched atop the mountain.
But yada yada yada to all that - we're there!
My point is, that for this young team, hitting the top at this moment in time is an achievement worth benchmnarking. Considering that this is the same team that was pegged by the hockey news to head in the opposite direction back in October, this accomplishment is quite impressive.
Most importantly, it should be noted that it is no accident they are there with the Senators at the top, only that it took the Canadiens a whole lot less time to get there than expected. The accident might be on the tumbling Senators part. The Canadiens, since being taken over by Bob Gainey in 2003, have aimed for and targetted nothing less than rebuilding from within to get there, and the moment has been four and a half years in the making.
What is surprising is that Montreal did most of it's retooling through it's own astute drafting. A nod of thanks must go Gainey's predecessor Andre Savard, who's talents brought the Habs Chris Higgins, Mike Komisarek and Tomas Plekanec to get the movement underway. Gainey was wise enough to continue on in the same mode, and 11 players drafted from 2003 through to 2005 have suited up for Montreal. Seven of those are current regulars!
While the wait to get back in a position where they can stare down the number spot has seemed eternal, this turnaround could almost be viewed as premature in some ways. I was expecting something of the sort by next season at best.
While this first touching of the top spot could be tenuous, it is by no means dubious, are this edition of the Habs is built to last.
They are the real deal, my friends.
As most soon to be great teams are, the Canadiens are built, and are continuing to be built, from the net out. Oddly, this defense first mindset has produced one of the top offenses in the NHL this season. That it is so young, and that there are more skilled talents in the pipeline, is telling for the Habs future strength.
Over the past three seasons, pillar ingredients have been groomed and installed in the right places, and have all come to fruition this season.
When the Canadiens drafted Carey Price three years ago, the move was mystifying for some. It was tunnel vision for Gainey and staff. Had Jose Theodore at the time continued to be the number one man in goal, a successor would still need to be on the scene right about now.
Regardless that Cristobal Huet ended up expediting Theo to Colorado, Gainey sought the best prospect in the draft to build around after Sidney Crosby and the GM nailed that goal on the head. All that was needed was for Price to develop at the proper place and the Habs goaltending future would be secured.
Price, despite a slight setback, has done so and more.
From the same draft class the Habs snatched up Guillaume Latendresse and Sergei Kostitsyn - not a bad haul on draft day!
Both 20 year old have shown the willingness to play a complete game at the NHL level, and the Canadiens are comfortable with allowing both talents to iron out the wrinkles in their game as long as they remain attentive students. The offensive upside of both players will come forth in bundles once the complete understanding of responsabilities is in place.
When patience was restored as the new order of the day by Gainey's arrival, such player scenarios were envisioned. Some players have been groomed at the AHL level, while others were deemed physically competant enough to begin the process in the AHL or continue on in junior. By treating each player as a separate entity, the organization has been able to let players move forward at comfortable paces.
Montreal now has filled many requirements in building a solid team.
There is dept aplenty - two or three NHL regulars sit out nightly in rotation, and the competition keeps fourth lines hungry and desperate.
The goaltending features two calm heads that can both take runs at the number one spot and give the team the confidence that it can win every game.
The backline features three key componants in the well rounded Andrei Markov, who can eat up minutes in all game aspects and excel; a bruising punisher and shot blocker in Mike Komisarek, who makes opponants think twice about getting too fancy around him; and a level headed Roman Hamrlik, who is able to steady everyone down when the moment requires. The supporting cast includes the multi faceted Mark Streit, who is almost matching Markov's numbers while employed in a bevy of roles; a young bruiser in the Komisarek mold in Ryan O'Byrne, whose size makes him a needed attribute when the going gets tough; Josh Gorge, who can assume Hamrlik's sense of poise with experience; and the speedy and hard Francis Bouillon, who despite a smaller frame, gets the job done with surprising grit and enthusiasm.
It has a been years since the Habs have had a bonafied top scoring line and they have finally pieced one together with Alex Kovalev, Tomas Plekanec, and Andrei Kostitsyn. That all three are capable of dazzling at one end and being fervantly involved at the other makes them a constant threat from anywhere on the ice. Plekanec is a surpringly gifted reader of plays with a great sense of anticipation and defensive responsability. His wingers are perfect foils who combine the gifts of speed and unpredictability to render defenses dazed.
As it has played out, the Canadiens second line is formerly their first. The duo of Saku Koivu and Chris Higgins remains intact on most nights, and depending on the game, they are either flanked by the younger Kostitsyn brother or Michael Ryder. The role of the line has changed some, as has it's success rate. The Canadiens could use more secondary scoring from the trio, who create a multitude of chances that aren't capitalized upon often enough. While they have their ups and downs, their are a good to above average matchup against most other second lines they face.
Rounding out the trios are a two lines worth of youthful exhuberance and veteran skill. Maxim Lapierre and Latendresse are the kids who crash and bang and create turnovers and change momentum. Lapierre brings speed while Latendresse is mastering the art of going for the net with zest to create traffic and opportunity. Veteran's Steve Begin, Bryan Smolinski, Tom Kostopoulos, and Mathieu Dandeneault platoon in different defensive roles, adding energy and mischief to the mix. The first two can fill in at center or use their size along the wings, and the remaining pair alternate between third and fourth line shutdown duty.
This season, the Canadiens, through leaps and bounds, have gotten steadier defensely. While their five on five play has improved dramatically, faceoff supremacy remains a concern.
What makes the upcoming playoffs look appealing are a power play is still the league's best and one of the top road records in the league. The concerns of tougher hockey come April can be calmed with the notion that Montreal usually excels when teams try to illadvisedly shove them around. The Flyers and Bruins, two teams who have attempted the tactic, are a combined 0 - 10 this season against the Canadiens.
Coach Guy Carbonneau has fought off claims that the Habs need an enforcer type player by suggesting that a team toughness approach suits today's game better. The Canadiens are not as small as some people would believe they play, and they have reacted to such situation with poise and discipline.
Regardless of the Canadiens standing today, it must be underlined what a young team this essentially still is. They will have off night, learn lessons and continue to improve. The patience that has served them so well in getting where they are now, it what will serve them best as they go forward.
It could very well be the Canadiens share first place with the Senators for a day or two before Ottawa gets their act together and reassumes their usual position with force. When it happens, no one should confude that with the Habs taking back steps.
The Canadiens are for real, and it is just a matter of time and growth before first place is theirs to own for a good long stretch.