The Habs through October: Better than expected, no?
So who thought that the Montreal Canadiens, without Andrei Markov for all but one game, would be sitting second in the NHL Eastern Conference?
Surprisingly they are, sporting a 7-3-1 record and an impressive 4-1 mark while on the road.
More impressive is that with the exception of a 3-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils, or should I say Martin Brodeur, the Canadiens losses are not as bad as they look. The month opened with a tight season-opening game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, where the Habs battled to the final seconds. It ended with a 3-1 loss, despite rifling 41 shots, to the Florida Panthers that capped a four-game week
The only other regular season loss, a 4-3 overtime decision to the Tampa Bay Lightining, stemmed from a simple lack of discipline resulting in two Tampa power play goals.
Despite the Canadiens record, the team's individual and group efforts have had their share of highs and lows through the first eleven games.
The Canadiens goaltending this season has been, in a word, outstanding. Carey Price has thus far disproved the critics of keeping him in Montreal over Jaroslav Halak for less money, and sits tied for second in the league with 6 wins. He is in the top-20 in both SvPct and GAA which can be a misleading ranking earlier in the season, considering some of the goalies listed have played as few as four games to his ten.
There has been no game in his 10 starts, and for that matter very few if any goals, that can be directly blamed on him
Alex Auld's lone appearance of the month was a stellar 22-save performance against the New York Islanders.
On the defensive end, the Canadiens have played admirably in Markov's absence. Rookie P.K. Subban will make mistakes, but his learning curve over the first month is clearly on the up swing. His decision making has improved and listening to his coaches has him at a plus 5 rating to go with 6 assists.
Roman Hamrlik missed most of training camp but has returned as the solid veteran he has always been on the blue line. His 19 blocked shots ties him for second on the team with Hal Gill. Hamrlik's offensive days may be far behind him, as was evident by his stick handling attempt against the Panthers on Saturday night.
Josh Gorges has leads the team in TOI (22:53) and hits (30), and plays every shift of every game. Not bad for a guy who was just a tack on by the San Jose Sharks in the Craig Rivet trade.
Moving Subban to the third paring with Alexandre Picard may have been the best move Jacques Martin did for both players. Subban was able to hone his defensive work and Picard, while slower, makes an excellent defensive conscious if his rookie counterpart decides to move the puck up ice, and is amongst the top-10 with a +7 rating.
While Picard makes $600K, and earning his pay, Jarsoslav Spacek is certainly not.
The veteran just cant keep up with the speedy opposition forwards. Although his zone coverage is still NHL level, there have been several ono-on-one moments where Spacek was seen looking to the rafters to find his pants. Spacek tried to put the blame for some of his errors on the fact that he and Hamrlik didn't have time to gel, due to Hamrlik's pre season injury. Well Hamrlik seems to have no problems getting his game in line. Just saying.
With the return of Markov, the future of Ryan O'Byrne in Montreal seems questionable. After starting the first three games, the 26-year-old spent the rest of October in the press box.
As a combined unit, they are doing the jobs and, after the shaky start, the Canadiens stand sixth beat in shots allowed with an average of 27.6 per game. Keeping opposing forwards away for a second shot seems to be an area that needs work though.
Up front the line of Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri and Andre Kostitsyn has been the backbone for the Canadiens offence.
Plekanec is already paying off his new 6-year contract , leading Habs forwards in TOI and not going into one of those post big signing tailspins that some players do. Add in his playing time to that of Price, and you start to see why Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier chose to trade Halak and have cap room on his roster for No. 14 and No. 31.
Kostisyn's work ethic has been a dramatic turnaround from last season offensively and is complimented by his 18 hits so far this season. Contract year effort? Perhaps, but if living in the now means winning, we'll take it.
Cammalleri missed the season-opener with a one game suspension, but shows no indication of slowing down from last season's playoff effort and along with Picard, has a +7 rating.
Flipside of the coin, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez can't seem to find a winger that can work with them, and have just a goal and and two assists each through the month. Still early to judge in my opinion, but another month of no production from a combined $12.3 million a season will have fans seething.
The October bargain on offense was the signing of Jeff Halpen for a meager $600K. His 3 goals and 4 assists marched Cammalleri on the month, and his 59% on faceoffs leads the team. He also had 13 blocked shots in October to lead all forwards. Halpern also credits some of his play to playing alongside Mathieu Darche.
Despite the lack of success with Gomez and Gionta thus far, Benoit Pouliot, who was their expected winger on the trio, is contributing no matter where Jacques Martin puts him. His 25 hits are second in the team and he has six points to go along with it.
The rest of the third and fourth liners, are also contributing in various ways, but di we expect Travis Moen to have more goals than Lars Eller at this point? Don't worry, Eller will get his groove eventually. Just remember that the 21-year-old has only 18 NHL games under his belt, with most of that playing on the St. Louis Blues or Canadiens third and fourth lines.
Shot wise, Montreal is in the middle of the pack overall and getting that second shot seems to be a big problem for them. Getting a big body to the net to cash those rebounds would be a benefit. Gionta isn't afraid to get in front of the net, but his 5'7" frame doesn't cut it battling the larger defenders.
So now we get to special teams, where nobody expected they would be able to count the total number of power play goals by the Canadiens on one hand at month's end.
Me neither, but just three goals in 39 opportunities ties them with New Jersey for last in the league. Montreal is also 26th overall in power play opportunities, so drawing the extra minor penalty here and there can only increase the chances for better success production-wise. With Markov back in the lineup, there should be some improvement in this department as well, although I'm still unsure why he wasn't on te 5-on-3 Saturday night.
Strangley enough, the team's 5-on-5 play is at an impressive 1.29 F/A ratio, good enough for fifth in the league. Typically it's the Canadiens even strength play that is a concern, over the man advantage, but so far we're seeing the opposite.
On the penalty kill, it can only get better than the team's already impressive 6th place ranking now with Markov on the blueline. The Canadiens have been perfect on the road in October in killing off penalties.
So now it's off to November where the Canadiens play 13 games in the first 27 days, with 5 against division rivals.
Can Carey Price maintain his October pace? Will the power play come to life? Can Gionta and Gomez find some sort of chemistry with whoever Jacques Martin puts on their wing? We'll start to get our answers on Tuesday when they visit the Columbus Blue Jackets.