When news broke on the morning of December 5th that both Alex Galchenyuk and David Desharnais would miss 6-8 weeks of action, there was much hand-wringing in Habs land – to say the least. Montreal sports radio call-in show switchboards lit up like the Las Vegas strip on Fight Night.
Many believed that Marc Bergevin would absolutely need to make a move to bolster the injuries, while cooler heads believed the NHL’s leading team should simply try to weather the storm from within. Both camps seemed to agree that the team would simply need to play .500 hockey until the walking wounded could return. The debate was based on whether or not that feat could be achieved by the existing talent pool.
Little did anyone suspect that in the coming weeks, the Habs’ dire situation would only compound. Forwards Andrew Shaw, Paul Byron, and Brendan Gallagher would suffer upper body injuries, while blueliners Andrei Markov and Greg Pateryn would be shelved with lower body ailments.
Things could not possibly get worse for the Canadiens, could they? Seasoned Canadiens followers know all too well that their beloved team is prone to bad luck in bunches. This season would prove no different. Further exacerbating the injury situation was the fact that the league had managed to figure out how to neutralize Shea Weber – which sucked virtually all power from the Habs’ power play.
Then, by some form of witchcraft, voodoo or other black magic, Carey Price would enter a highly uncharacteristic slump, with the low point coming in the form of a 7-1 beat-down at the hands of the Minnesota Wild.
Marc Bergevin has made it clear through his offseason actions that he expects the Canadiens to contend in the immediate term. Surely, given the hailstorm of adversity outlined above, the GM would come to the rescue.
Quite the opposite, in fact. Bergevin remained as silent as he had during the 2015-16 debacle, in which he failed to properly address the loss of Price, among other team shortcomings. Had the dapper directeur learned nothing? Whatever the answer or rationale, Bergevin decided the appropriate course would be to weather the storm from within; leading many to believe his next suit fitting should be for a straitjacket.
With Galchenyuk, Byron, and Shaw now back in the lineup and hindsight being history’s great adjudicator, let us now look back at the 18 games that followed the December 5th injury announcement, to see how the Canadiens fared under this strategy.
To do so, let us look no further than the tired old avenue of basic analytics – the win/loss record. During Galchenyuk’s absence, the Habs managed a 9-5-4 record, which earned them 22 of a possible 36 points. If the goal was to play .500 hockey, they met and exceeded this mission by managing to win at a .611 clip. Even more impressive is the fact that 11 of those games were played on the road, yielding 15 of a possible 22 points, for a rather remarkable .681 winning percentage. The Canadiens had climbed to the top of the standings largely on the back of their home record, so this is a point that is of great significance.
So how did they do it? For anyone not paying attention, the assumption would be that Price carried them through, but as has already been mentioned, the Canadiens managed more than a few wins despite the mediocre play of their all-world netminder. Through his first ten starts of 2016-17, Carey Price never allowed more than three goals. Not once. In the twenty-two starts that followed, Price has allowed four or more goals in half of them. This meant that the Canadiens would need to rely on offence to win games. How could this be done without their number one centre, number two defenceman, and a myriad of important supporting players? Who was it that would step up and play the role of hero, if not Price?
The answer is – everybody. When the Canadiens welcomed Shaw and Galchenyuk back on January 14th, they did so while maintaining their perch atop the Atlantic Division and sitting third overall in NHL standings. The credit for this impressive feat belonged to everyone from management, to every single player on the roster. The veterans stepped up. The rookies stepped up. The call-ups impressed.
This total team triumph can be chalked up to leadership. The players bought in and followed the coaching staff’s system and executed it by following the lead of their captain. Max Pacioretty stepped up in a way that Habs fans have been waiting for since the C was affixed to his sweater. The 18 games without Galchenyuk saw Pacioretty score an amazing 13 goals, including three of the game-winning variety. Captain Max even managed to write some history in the process, claiming top spot in the Canadiens annals as the team’s most prolific overtime hero of all time. The man called Patch also became the first player in NHL history to score OT winners in consecutive days, achieving the feat in Nashville and Dallas, only 24 hours apart. Pacioretty even managed to withstand taking a Weber warhead off the foot, without missing any time.
The captain stepped up when he was most needed. This bodes very well for Canadiens’ fans, as the knock on Pacioretty in recent years has been his inability to carry the team through the tough times. Habs fans can only hope this means their man Max will now figure out how to elevate his game come playoff time, but that’s an article for another day.
More honourable mentions belong to players such as Radulov, Danault, Beaulieu, and Petry, but again, the Canadiens’ record in December and January remains a total team effort.
The second half of the season is now underway and the Canadiens remain in a lofty position as they now look to continue their winning ways with a complete roster. The question of whether or not this team is a Cup contender will remain until the final buzzer sounds on the 2017 season, but for a team that completely imploded a year ago in the face of adversity, the way they handled the recent rash of rotten luck has to have Habs fans smiling. As for the man at the helm of the team who plotted this course, Marc Bergevin might be proving to Montreal that he’s not only smartly-dressed, but might also know a thing or two about how to build a hockey team.