As the Habs move into December, a look at the first two months

November has come and gone, and the Montreal Canadiens sit atop the Northeast Division, sporting a 15-8-1 record.

The team again finds itself without defenseman Andrei Markov, who could be out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. Fortunately the rest of the team is in good health as they begin a busy December against the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday night.

Using the format we've been surveying some mainstram media types of late, EOTP contributors Andrew Berkshire, Francis Bouchard and myself graded the Habs on a 1-10 on the key components of the team as well as as few positives and negatives.

Five on Five: 1.21 F/A (6th in NHL)

Berkshire: (8) - A massive improvement on last season, a +7 on the year, contributing to a +13 in overall goal differential. There have been struggles to score at times during the year, but it seems to have more to do with individually struggling players than a struggling team, as the wins keep coming. At some point however a top 6 forward must replace Travis Moen on the second line, and Scott Gomez has to wake up, or this stat won't be sustainable.

van Steendelaar: (8) - "The team's 5-on-5 was an ultimate mess last season. Getting some secondary scoring from the likes of Jeff Halpern (+8) has been a contributing factor, especially with Gomez, Brian Gionta and the like struggling. The play of Tomas Plekanec (+6), at both ends of the ice, and Mike Cammalleri (+9) has also been a huge contribution. Anyone expect to see Alexandre Picard leading Habs rearguards in +/-?? He's +8."

Bouchard: (7)

Power Play: 15.6% (20th)

Berkshire: (7) "I'm giving a better mark here than many will, because I'm putting more weight on November games than October, and I think it's important to recognize how well the Canadiens have coped on the PP without Andrei Markov, and with a rookie on the first wave PP.

"Hamrlik has been better than expected, while Jaroslav Spacek and P.K Subban have contributed similar numbers. When looking through the statistics I was surprised to see that Montreal's PP clicked at 11/51 in November, good for 21.6%, which would be 8th overall in the NHL had they adjusted so well in October. I don't think it's a big stretch that with Andrei Markov back in, this team would have a dominant PP in the league again."

van Steendelaar; (6.5) - "The power play has to becme a concise unit. Unfortunately without Markov, they  seem to run around with their heads cut off. Though vastly improved over October, there is clearly room for improvement. If the 5-on-5 can function effectively without No. 79, then the PP can learn to adapt as well."

Bouchard: (6)

Penalty Killing: 90.1 % (2nd)

Berkshire: (9.8) "Is there much else that could be asked for? Almost impossible not to give a 10, the only thing I would like to see is a bit more completion shorthanded.

"With Plekanec and Gionta both playing heavy PK minutes, I'd like to see a shorthanded goal popped a bit more often. Perhaps the secret to that is having a better passer playing on defense, maybe giving Subban some more time on the PK.

"Really though, this is the best penalty killing we've seen from this franchise in recent memory. Plekanec, Moen, Tom Pyatt and Halpern are spectacular at forward, while Hal Gill, Josh Gorges, Spacek and Roman Hamrlik have kept everything to the outside down low. It seems like almost no passes inside the 4 man box become scoring chances, everything is deflected or intercepted and cleared. Spectacular."

van Steendelaar (8.5): Still work to be done, especially at home, where they are 86.4%. The PK ability is a testament to the fact they are 6th overall in times shorthanded (101) with 59 of those times happening at the Bell Centre. This unfortunately contributes to the inefficiency of the  power play where undisciplined penalties shorten time with the man advantage.

"If that pace continues, I doubt the PK ratio sill stay up there for much longer."

Bouchard: (8)

Goaltending: 1.96 GA/G (1st)

Berkshire: (10) "Carey Price has been phenomenal. The team defense played by the Canadiens obviously deserves a ton of credit, but it's hard to imagine the Canadiens being anywhere close to atop the North East Division without Carey Price.

"When challenged to be better after Jaroslav Halak was traded, he's surpassed all expectations. 1st in Wins, 1st in shutouts, 1st in games played, 1st in minutes played, 1st in saves, 2nd in shots against, 4th in save percentage (2nd among goalies with 15 starts), and 5th in GAA (3rd among goalies with 15 starts).

"Despite all I've written here, there's only one word needed to describe Price this season: Vezina."

van Steendelaar: (9.5) "Like many, I can't give a perfect mark on goaltending, but this is about as close as you can get! Carey Price has been outstanding in every game, and has given his chance to at least get a single point every night. Two straight months he has been named the Molson Cup montly segment winner, and to no surprise.

"He as certainly proved he can go 9 or 10 games straight, and when he needs the rest, Alex Auld seems at the ready to back him up. In spite of his performance supporting Price, Auld knows his roll on the club and there will be no goaltending controversy this season.

"The question is, can Price sustain this pace the rest of the season and into the playoffs?"

Bouchard: (9)


Berkshire: (8.5) "I was tempted to give Martin a higher grade than this, because he really has the team buying into his system, and he really seems to be the right coach for the team.

"I like how he's allowing Benoit Pouliot and Lars Eller to develop slowly, learning the defensive aspects of the game first, especially Eller.

"However until Martin does something about Gomez's lack of production, I can't give him a higher grade. That, and using Travis Moen as a top 6 forward. Aside from Pyatt, I don't think there's another forward on the Habs that fits into the top 6 worse than Moen. He's alright for the odd energy shift, but that's it. It's pretty bad when I find myself longing for when Lapierre was playing with Gomez instead, at least he has hands."

van Steendelaar (8.5): "With Markov out of commission for all but a handful of games, Jacques Martin has got the PK and 5-on-5 up and running smoothly, thanks in part to Perry Pearn

"Martin unfortunately does not believe in the 'if it's not broke, why fix it?' mentality, and managed to make a mess of both scoring lines, when he broke up Plekanec, Mike Cammalerri and Andrei Kostitsyn. Though his ideals to wake up Scott Gomez were just, it was perhaps a costly sacrifice.

"Pierre Groulx has also had a tremendous contribution in getting Price back on track and focused on getting his glove hand, once deemed questionable, to be less of a liability. Kirk Muller has a great rapport with the younger players. Once they can get the PP resurrected, they should be home free."

Bouchard (8)

Two Positives

Berkshire - "The team has a 15-8-1 record with Markov missing all but 7 games. During this time Cammalleri, Gomez and Gionta have lagged far behind last season's pace.

"This tells me that we have nothing but better performances from this team down the stretch. As the season goes on, Pouliot and Eller are gaining Martin's confidence and who knows, maybe Markov will be ok. If Markov can come back healthy, we have a Cup contender on our hands.

"Andrei Kostitsyn seems to have finally hit his stride in the NHL. He's had hot streaks offensively before, but he's never played this well. Not only is he putting the puck in the net and setting up goals, he's breaking up plays and backchecking like a guy who wants to be considered for the Selke. He's been downright dominant in nearly every game this year."

van Steendelaar - "Tomas Plekanec. Quickly becoming a dominat two-way center, and being compared by several to Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red WIngs. Had the Canadiens signed Jaroslav Halak, Plekanec would be elsewhere and the Habs would likely not be where they are, even with the goaltending of No. 41.

"Second would have to be the leadership and camaraderie on the team. A lot of credit here has to go to Bob Gainey, who swept out a team essentially divided in the dressing room, and brought in guys who were willing to lead as a group. Pierre Gauthier added to that by bringing in Jeff Halpern."

Bouchard: - "Players who have impressed me the most are Price and Plekanec. I am impressed by the team speed and cohesive play. Also the intensity and commitment in most of the games.

"To me, they are far superior than last year's regular season. I think Pouliot should go back on the first two lines. He has the talent to be there. That might help Gomez get going."

Two Negatives

Berkshire - "The team has alternated wins and losses since Markov went down to injury, and there's a bit of inconsistency showing offensively.

"Unless Scott Gomez can become the playmaker he was last season (zero primary assists at even strength this season), this team might continue with the inconsistency for awhile yet, perhaps until Eller is ready to move up a couple lines."

"If Andrei Markov can't play again this season, I don't think this team has the offensive depth to win the Stanley Cup. Worse than that it makes Markov untradeable, and puts Pierre Gauthier in an impossible situation when deciding what to do about a contract. No player who's available for trade could replace Markov, and defensemen always demand a higher return than they're worth during the season."

van Steendelaar - "I have to agree with Andrew on both scenarios. The team cannot continue a pace of .500 win one-lose one hockey and expect to make the playoffs. It's time for Scott Gomez, who has been analyzed extensively here to step up offensively as well.

"The Markov situation is a bit of a slippery slope as the team still does not know what the future holds for him. Putting  him on LTIR does open some cap room, to possibly bring in some support either on the bluline or on the top six.

"The other side of the coin is a group of rearguards (Markov, Gill, Gorges and Hamrlik) are all in contract years. The same can be said for Kostitsyn.  Pierre Gauthier cold find him back in the same situation as Gainey did , to some extent, two years ago in terms of stating from scratch. Fortunately for him, the situation is much better and manageable."

On to December....

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