It is far too early to start planning parade routes, or talk about contending for the cup, but to date the Habs only have 3 regulation losses, and have done so rather quietly. This is exactly the start the team and management wanted and needed, but the trend must continue to be taken seriously.
The Canadiens are only 13 games into the 06/07 season and yet the feel is somewhat familiar to last season’s fast start with both versions of the Canadiens having 17 points in their first 12 games (8-3-1 in 05/06 vs. 7-2-3 in 06/07). While some experts predict that this run won’t last and the Habs will settle somewhere between barely scrapping into the playoffs and missing them entirely; they are missing some valuable information when comparing the 05/06 Canadiens to the current roster.
In 05/06 the Canadiens were repeatedly called the “Cardiac Kids” for the uncanny knack of scoring timely goals to pull games out of the fire and salvage points in the standings. Eventually, luck like that runs out, and teams start losing the one goal games as was seen last season. Another contributing factor to last seasons slide down to the bottom of the playoff race was the self destruction of Jose Theodore, and the distractions of Mike Ribeiro; but we’ll get to grind that axe later.
This season, the Canadiens are generating more offence and are winning games by more then one goal thanks in large part to the additions of recently rejuvenated Sergei Samsonov, Janne Niinimaa, Radek Bonk, and Mike Johnson. Thanks to the players mentioned above, (along with the new coaching staff’s guidance) the Canadiens are in the top 3 for penalty killing and power play, whereas in 05/06 the Habs were near the bottom of the league on the PK and middle of the pack on the PP.
Canadiens fans know very well what Samsonov brings to the table after watching him develop and score as a member of the Bruins. His creativity and scoring punch is welcomed with open arms to a second line that has struggled offensively. Samsonov seems to have found/elevated his game after being demoted to the fourth line, in a well played gamble that paid off for coach Carbonneau and the team
Janne Niinimaa was picked up via trade with the Dallas Stars for the oft outspoken Mike Ribeiro. This move has turned out to be a blessing with Janne averaging around 19 minutes ice time per game with satisfactory results considering he is playing on his off side while learning a new system in Montreal. Injuries made this trade a necessity but let’s face it, even if Niinimaa was terrible, it was still a positive to be free of the distraction that was Mike Ribeiro.
The real wild card in off-season additions was Mike Johnson. After coming off a career year in Phoenix while on the third line, critics felt that duplicating the feat in Montreal would be near impossible. Johnson has responded nicely and is on pace to match his output from one year ago, while still providing consistent defensive hockey playing alongside Radek Bonk. The tandem has become a relied upon force in shutting down top lines from other teams, and share the lead on the Canadiens in +/- at +6 as a result.
Bonk was intentionally listed as being a new addition because the Radek Bonk that is playing in Montreal now has been ten times better then the player he was last year. In all fairness to Radek he did have some nagging injuries that never seemed to heal, but I believe that the addition of Mike Johnson to his line has been the true turning point thus far, as the pair has had instant chemistry on the ice.
Of course there are more factors then the ones listed, (like the stellar play of Chris Higgins, David Aebischer, and Mike Komisarek) but for the sake of time we’ll take a quick look at what only a few players have brought to the team so far.
Chris Higgins – The skeptics have been all but silenced, and now know he is the real deal. With 8 goals (3 short handed) and 5 assists in his first 13 games, Chris has become an important part of the top line and he deserves to be there. The energy Chris brings to every shift is not only contagious for his teammates, but impressive for a sophomore player
Sheldon Souray – Offensively Souray is tied for the lead in the NHL scoring for defenseman averaging almost a point per game with 6 goals and 6 assists. If his defensive game comes back into form without losing much offense, he should be a Norris nominee at years end.
Andrei Markov – As most Canadiens fans know, Andrei might be the most underrated defenseman in the NHL right now. Markov also has 12 points ( 2 goals and 10 assists with both goals as game winners ) and remains a key part of the Habs offense on the power play. Andrei’s positional play and stick work is the main reason he is third on the team plus/minus rating of 4. If he can keep this pace up all season, he should also get some recognition and be a nominee for the Norris trophy.
Saku Koivu – The Captain and heart and soul of this team has twelve points so far and always gives 100% on each shift. Koivu is under appreciated by fans and media alike because he is so consistent with his efforts that it just becomes expected and almost unnoticeable.
Alexei Kovalev – Alex has been moved to the centre position between Sergei Samsonov and Alex Perezhogin, a move that has paid dividends quickly and hopefully for a long time. Alex can take control of any shift or game whenever he wants on skill alone but his consistency has lacked somewhat in the past season. If changing positions to centre can keep him interested and motivated he has the potential to charge up the list of scoring leaders in the NHL.
Michael Ryder – Ryder was injured most of last season and came into camp 25 pounds of muscle lighter. 25 pounds is a lot to gain back over the course of a season, but now that he is healthy, he is quicker and a lot more aggressive on the fore-check. Michael has always been a streaky scorer but if an injured Ryder scored 30 goals last season, how many can a healthy Ryder score this season?
Mike Komisarek – We have been teased in the past few seasons by glimpses of Komisarek’s potential, but it looks like the learning curve is coming to an end. Mike has been averaging 20 minutes per game in every situation this season and he has excelled thus far. His positional play is much improved and he rarely gets caught out of position going for the big hit like he did in the past. “Komo” as his teammates call him, sits second in plus/minus rating on the team at plus 5 and might look to contributing more offense as the season progresses and gains more confidence.
There are still 69 games left in the season and anything can happen, but the 06/07 Canadiens are for real, and with the new players and youth continuing to improve game after game, home ice for the playoffs is not out of the question. Consistency and stability are the keys to a successful campaign, and the Canadiens are the most stable they have been in a long while. Now is the time to prove it.