It's tough to look at the Montreal Canadiens right now and see a downside. The team is rolling four lines, getting big performances from its biggest players, winning convincingly, and making history in the process. It's an exciting time for fans and players alike. The Habs have set the bar about as high as it can be set.
It's mighty early in the season to be discussing the springtime, but it's also difficult to deny the increasingly audible whispers of Stanley Cup aspirations in Montreal. The end of last season fell somewhere between an honest effort and a disappointing finish, and it starkly demonstrated the work needed for the Habs of May to become the Habs of June.
This season, the early indications are that the next level has been attained. It was announced boldly when the team faced the St. Louis Blues this week and emerged with a 3-0 victory. It was Carey Price's second shutout in his last three games, and it came against a team that had lost just once in its last six contests.
That garnered hefty praise from Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. As we all have, the veteran coach found himself running out of creative ways to describe the play of Price. In sharp contrast to years prior, though, Hitchcock went on to praise the team as a whole, pointing out their speed and depth as contributing factors to their success.
What Hitchcock witnessed from the opposing side was not the same Montreal team that defeated the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings just a few nights prior. The lineup may have been the same, and the forward lines were once again rolled without wildly varying ice time, but the Habs struggled early with the hard forecheck and short passes from St. Louis.
Sniper Vladimir Tarasenko was given a few good looks early on only to be thwarted by Price, and the Canadiens soon found themselves deploying the dump-and-chase methods that had been the main source of criticism the few seasons prior.
The question now is whether those bad habits will rise back to the surface. Therrien has been adamant that his on-ice strategies haven't changed, and that the players have been better adhering to his system, but the first few games of the season indicate an increased focus on carrying the puck in transition, and having the defencemen join the rush. Against St. Louis, those tactics appeared to be largely scaled back, save for an active second period more resemblant of their previous play this season.
That is not necessarily a cause for alarm — not much is when your team is 7-0 — but an eyebrow raise might be acceptable. Slow first periods, an over-reliance on goaltending, and a low score are hallmarks of the Habs of yesteryear. Those same weaknesses were exploited by Tampa Bay in the playoffs last spring; the Habs of May. So it goes.
Montreal has had a few nights to recharge before they face back-to-backs on the weekend, and it will be interesting to see which team shows up.
This year's Habs have begun to rewrite the narrative. They want to be established as contenders, and as the murmurs start to place them among the league's elite, anything short of a Stanley Cup Final appearance will not be enough. And as far as Habs fans are concerned, winning in such an appearance is all that matters.