No one bet the farm on the Canadiens taking three of four points from the mighty Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins to open their 2018-2019 season, it’s fair to surmise. Or that they’d build on their early-season success to string together a modest winning streak, including a second victory against the Pens that saw them overcome a 2-0 deficit to prevail 4-3 in a shootout. Yet here we are, eight games in, and the Habs, at first blush, don’t look anything like the team we grew sadly accustomed to watching last season. Suddenly, all that grim talk of another year lost has turned to whether Jesperi Kotkaniemi should stick around for more than a cup of coffee and to the team’s renewed emphasis on speed.
The key personnel changes at the top of the lineup – suddenly the Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty trades don’t look so bad, after all – and behind the bench have allowed Claude Julien to finally put his stamp of this team. The buy-in, from the players, has been palpable. Armed with a richly deserved new contract, Paul Byron – incredibly – may have found an extra gear, while Julien seems to have caught lightning in a bottle with the new top line of Philip Danault flanked by Brendan Gallagher and newcomer Tomas Tatar, who’s playing like he has something to prove. In all but the home opener against the Kings, the line has been dangerous on almost every shift.
If you’re a Habs fan, you’ve got to like that speed is the team’s new currency; and though it may not be sustainable come February and March – the dog days of the NHL calendar – the Canadiens appear poised to give us some entertaining hockey worth watching – something that was sadly lacking last season. The day after they skated rings around the Red Wings on their way to an easy 7-3 win, Julien, in a surprising show of transparency, said that after last year’s debacle the Canadiens’ brass took a hard look at their roster and determined that the quickest path to redemption lay in building on what was already a team strength: speed.
Enter Mike Reilly, Matthew Peca, and Max Domi. Next thing you know, the Habs are being hailed as one of the league’s fastest teams through the first few weeks of the season.
There will be losing streaks and plenty of time yet for Montrealers to get their collective hockey socks in a twist. Opponents will figure out (again) that the only way to slow down the Habs is to lay on the body and wear down their will to compete. That mindset is hard-wired into the L.A. Kings’ DNA, and look what they did to the Habs in the home opener: more than just throw a blanket over the Canadiens in the final two periods, they sucked the air out of the Bell Centre.
Meanwhile, you have to wonder whether Kotkaniemi, the league’s first millennial, stands to benefit from further seasoning in the AHL or the Finnish SM-liiga. Thus far, Julien has shielded him from the tough assignments, which is all well and good, but his development may be better served playing 20-plus minutes a game in his native Finland than 10 minutes a night in Montreal, on a team not picked by any person of sound mind to hoist the Cup. With the rookie’s ten-game threshold fast approaching, it’ll be interesting to see what the Canadiens decide. Come what may, credit the kid for not looking out of place and turning what was supposed to be a foregone conclusion – a one-way ticket to Laval or Finland – into a difficult decision.
For now, though, the Habs are the toast of the town, and Marc Bergevin deserves plaudits for seeing the error of his ways and embracing the league-wide trend towards speed because it’s brought a level of excitement back to the Bell Centre and to living rooms across the city.