When the Montreal Canadiens players exited the ice following the 3-2 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on opening night, they did so with heads held high. That’s not just because it was a battling and enterprising performance against a legitimate contender, but also down to the fact that we saw something different from what we became accustomed to last season. Something exciting.
Granted, that was just one game out of what is undoubtedly a very long and strenuous campaign, and there were question marks about whether the team would be able to keep up that kind of intensity. The game taking place on opening night in front of the eyes of the nation and against a traditional rival also perhaps helped tip the scales ever so slightly.
Only, here we are five games later, with the Habs having won four of those, saying the exact same things we were saying after that night at the Scotiabank Arena. The team is still playing with the same grit, the same determination, the same pride, passion, energy and intelligence that we saw through the first 60-odd minutes.
When the team left the ice following a dramatic 3-2 win over the St. Louis Blues at the Bell Centre on Wednesday night, there was the general consensus that things might be starting to fall into place.
During the whole of the pre-season, the mass opinion was that the Habs would be better than expected — and I questioned at what point that becomes actual expectation. Either way, it seems people were right to get excited about this group.
The stats don’t lie: the Canadiens have had a drastically better start through six games than what they did last season. In fact, all things considered, the Habs were essentially eliminated from playoff contention by the end of October last year.
After six games last season:— The Forum (@leforummontreal) October 18, 2018
Goals for: 10
❌ Goals against: 22
Different scorers: 8
After six games this season:
Goals for: 21
❌ Goals against: 15
Different scorers: 11#GoHabsGo pic.twitter.com/r1sX1KCyhb
This time, things are different. Montreal has nine points on the board through six games as opposed to just three at this time last year. They have scored 21 goals from various sources, up 11 on 2017-18, and conceded 15, or seven fewer. Every facet of play seems to have improved.
It doesn’t just stop there though. The Canadiens are shooting the puck more than other teams (33.8 per game to rank eighth), conceding fewer shots (23.6 per game for fourth), shooting at a better percentage, earning more power plays, conceding fewer — and they’re doing all this with a roster which is, on average, almost a year younger than that of the rest of the league.
The Habs are faring better in practically every statistic in practically every department compared to what they managed last season, and it is no coincidence.
Perhaps what is most refreshing to see (and this may have contributed to the successes thus far) is that there is no true standout superstar on the team. Some would argue Carey Price is that man, but he has been hard at work to bounce back from a poor showing last season, and Anyti Niemi will keep him in check after impressing so far.
After Shea Weber, who earns just over $7.8 million per year, no Habs player earns above $6 million. Brendan Gallager, the top scorer from last season with 31 goals, and the top scorer so far this campaign with four goals in six games, will occupy less than $4 million of salary cap space this year. There are few undeserving financial heavyweights in this squad, comprised of players who are enjoying playing with one another and so far thriving in what can be the most rewarding market in the hockey world.
That is translating onto the ice, with every line contributing to how Claude Julien wants his team to play. Gallagher, Tomas Tatar, Paul Byron, Jonathan Drouin, Charles Hudon, Max Domi, Artturi Lehkonen, Mikey Reilly, Joel Armia, Andrew Shaw and Tomas Plekanec have all scored this season already, with the first five being on two goals or more. There is a real spread in production, something which can only be beneficial moving forward.
Add to that a defence corps which has so far exceeded expectations and you have a pretty healthy cocktail for success. Jeff Petry has shown an experienced presence on the ice, while Reilly has been fantastic to start the season. Noah Juulsen and Xavier Ouellet have shown they are more than capable, and Jordie Benn certainly fits into the ‘pleasant surprise’ category up to this point.
Julien and his staff deserve a tremendous amount of credit for the transformation, too. By helping the Habs transition in style to a more aggressive and easily-accustomed method of playing, but also a game based on speed both physically and mentally, he appears to have fine-tuned a machine that runs pretty damn well when full of fuel.
Domi summed up the feel-good factor surrounding the Habs in a recent interview, and his words are hugely encouraging:
“Ever since my first day, I’ve been really happy to be with this franchise, this team, even more now that we’re having a good start to the season. It’s good, and I feel really lucky to be here. It’s a big hockey market. When you win, everything goes well and when you lose, it’s harder. Some people don’t like that, but I’d like to believe that it forces you to bring out your best every day.”
There is room for improvement without a doubt. For example, the Habs are currently over 5% below the league average on the power play and 7% down on the typical penalty kill.
Woven into the tapestry that is the 2018-19 Montreal Canadiens are a number of interesting storylines already. How will Domi adjust to life in Montreal? Will Hudon and Lehkonen have breakout years? Will Armia and Peca prove to be shrewd pickups by Marc Bergevin? Can Price help carry this team to the post-season? Or will he even need to?
However, nobody is pretending that this is the finished article, or anywhere close. This team will grow; there will be losses, there may even be hard losing streaks. For now, it would be wrong to assume that the Canadiens will make the playoffs this season, and the concern that the franchise could finish 15-20th overall and end up in the ‘no man’s land’ draft pick wise is genuine and understandable.
But this is what we asked for, right? We wanted a team that would play hard every night, would be fun to watch, would grow better with every shift and would most importantly put some pride back into Montreal hockey.
As has been mentioned time and time again, this is a young group which appears to be adjusting very quickly to the NHL level, and the start to the season that the bleu, blanc et rouge have made should fill us all with hope that we are witnessing the start of something special.