A few months ago it appeared that Montreal was teetering on the proverbial cliff, their season hanging over the side like a runaway 18-wheeler. It was eerily similar to the collapse that we all witnessed last season, but with the added frustration of having a healthy Carey Price on the roster.
Then things changed, and they went from potential collapse to a legitimate Stanley Cup threat in the Eastern Conference. There’s a lot about this new-look Habs team that should make even the most cynical fan sit up and take notice.
New Coach, New System, New Life
When the Montreal Canadiens were entering their bye week the team was floundering in first place, as odd as that sounds.
The penalty kill was struggling, Carey Price was buried under a deluge of high-danger scoring chances, and the offence was listless. Then, the improbable happened. Michel Therrien was relieved of his duties and Claude Julien took over behind the bench.
Despite a few early hiccups while adjusting to the new coach and system, the Habs are rolling into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the NHL. Julien guided Montreal to a 16-7-1 record and an Atlantic Division title.
Under the previous coaching regime, the playoff success of the Habs depended on the play of Price. If he was anything less than stellar, or if he was hurt, the playoffs became a trial that no amount of talent could overcome.
With Julien at the helm the over-reliance on an all-world goalie is a thing of the past. The Canadiens play a dominant puck possession system, and still have Price as an added bonus. Factor in that the penalty kill was rebuilt to stop the bleeding of high-danger chances, and all of a sudden the Habs aren’t giving up many goals. In fact, they’ve only allowed 39 even-strength goals in the 24 games coached by Julien.
Shea Weber & Co. are rested
While the subject of stopping goals is fresh, let’s talk about Shea Weber, and how he quietly put together a fantastic defensive stretch to end the season. In terms of even-strength goals against, Weber allowed only 29 all season. The only regular defender on the Habs with fewer is Andrei Markov, with 28, and he played 300 fewer minutes than Weber this season.
In fact over the last 10 games of the season Weber only allowed one 5v5 goal against, an impressive feat for anyone, let alone someone who was tasked with keeping Alexei Emelin above water for half the year.
Weber got time to rest some nagging injuries to end the season, and that means the Habs are getting a fully healed defensive stalwart for a grueling playoff run. There aren’t many teams who can say similar for their post-season. In fact, once Jordie Benn returns to the lineup, the Canadiens will be one of the healthiest teams in the playoffs.
Depth, at every position
The playoffs are when you want your star players to produce and stand out. In Montreal one would expect Max Pacioretty to do so, but for the first time in a while it’s not just on the captain’s shoulders to drive the offence created by P.K. Subban on the back end.
Flanking Pacioretty will be the wizard from Nizhny Tagil, Alexander Radulov, who is shaping up to be one of the best free-agent signings in team history. Behind Radulov and Pacioretty there’s the ever reliable Brendan Gallagher, who despite another broken hand showed that he can’t be stopped at creating chances for his teammates. Beyond that, there’s the speedy 20-plus-goal-scorer Paul Byron who turned in arguably the most surprising offensive performance out of anyone in the NHL this year. Of course, we must mention the rookie from Finland, Artturi Lehkonen, who just last year bested the Frölunda team scoring record of Daniel Alfredsson in the SHL playoffs.
Since Julien took over we’ve seen Lehkonen emerge not only as a top defensive forward, but as a scoring threat that utilizes a shot so filthy that most theatres had to give it an R-rating.
Down the middle, Phillip Danault rewarded Marc Bergevin’s faith in him with a 40-point season, while facing the top lines of opposing teams each night. Tomas Plekanec may not have produced at his expected rate, but his playoff experience in invaluable to a young team. Whether it be Alex Galchenyuk or Andrew Shaw on the third-line at centre it doesn’t matter much. Shaw has the drive to win in the post-season, and Galchenyuk was as clutch as it gets during the regular season, scoring the most overtime goals in Habs history.
The defensive depth is apparent as well. If someone falters, or goes down with an injury Brandon Davidson, Jordie Benn and Nikita Nesterov are highly capable of taking on a more important role in the lineup.
The best in the world
Two words: Carey Price
Even in Therrien’s archaic system, Price has proven he can shoulder the load and drag his team kicking and screaming into a conference final. With a coach that built a system to ease his workload, Price is back in the form that won him multiple awards just two years ago.
If opposing fans found it frustrating facing a prime Carey Price in the past, they’re going to be even more annoyed when they have to try to beat not only a dominant puck-possession team, but a dominant possession team backed by the best netminder in the world.
There’s a lot to be excited about this post-season, especially after a disappointing season last year. This team is ready to prove that last season’s fiasco has been forgotten.
Since Julien was hired, Montreal has been running like a well-oiled machine, en route to another division title. If proving their critics wrong wasn’t enough, I’m sure that the Canadiens, and especially Carey Price, would like to exact some revenge for their 2014 third-round loss to the Rangers.