The Montreal Canadiens have started the month of November in good shape for a team that began the season on the road against the upstart Hurricanes and twice played both the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Yet 10 games in, the Habs sat sixth in the Atlantic, just two points back of third – not too shabby considering the quality of the opposition they faced. Through it all, the boys in red, white, and blue collected eight of a possible eight points against the Blues and Leafs. Only a fool wouldn’t be happy with that. The 6-5 road victory over the Leafs in Game 2, which saw Habs overcome a three-goal deficit after two periods, set the tone for the season ahead and served notice that the Cardiac Kids care back, this time with fresh reinforcements.
It’s early days, of course, and there’s still plenty of time yet for things to go sideways. Because on the flip side, a good start, on a scale of importance, is eclipsed only by a strong finish: Just ask last year’s Tampa Bay Lightning, or the Blues, for that matter, who clawed their way back from the league basement around the All-Star break to capture hockey’s coveted grail.
Along the way, the Habs have not erred from the recipe that spelled success last year: speed, a relentless forecheck, and balanced scoring up and down the lineup. New this season, of course, is the performance of a renascent power play, which has been offset, as if by design, by a dismal penalty kill that’s cost the team a few games that could have gone either way. From where I’m sitting, it looks like teams are exposing an increasingly lead-footed Shea Weber for easy tap-ins and one-timers off cross-seam passes. But there’s always a fix when it comes to the penalty kill says the coaching staff, and until further notice, I’m happy to take their word for it.
Also on the bright side: the addition of Nick Cousins – a glue and sandpaper guy in the same mould as the player he replaced, Andrew Shaw, but with better speed and a much smaller cap hit – and the emergence of rookies Nick Suzuki and Cale Fleury. Coach Claude Julien now has the luxury of drawing on tremendous team depth – a must when your roster lacks bona fide star power. That luxury has allowed him to mix and match his bottom-six from one game to the next and to shelter Suzuki and Fleury from A-list opponents while they find their footing. Suzuki, by his own account, found that things were moving a little bit too fast for him, but getting off the schneid and onto the scoresheet appears to have stoked his confidence, and fans are beginning to see what the fuss is all about when it comes to the London-born pivot.
Fleury, since his brief sojourn in the press box, has been a physical force. Just when you think he’s being lined up, he braces himself and leaves would-be opponents prostrate on the ice, wondering what happened to that thundering bodycheck they were about to throw. The Calgary-born Fleury should be a mainstay on the Canadiens’ defence for the next 10 years.
Joel Armia has clearly found a home in Montreal. Playing alongside Max Domi and a resurgent Jonathan Drouin, the soft-spoken Finn has shown a newfound willingness to punish opponents and provide a net-front presence on the powerplay, where he’s displayed a deft scoring touch and looked as though he could teach a masterclass on stickhandling. Another thing you’ll notice about Armia is the patience with which he goes about his business – as though everything‘s moving in slow motion – and how he uses his reach and size to protect the puck once he gains possession.
You won’t find a single Montreal Canadien in the top-30 in league scoring, yet by the 13-game mark at the turn of the calendar, no team in the Atlantic had scored more than the Habs, and that includes both the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. I’ll take a roster with eight 20-goal scorers over one that relies on a small core of key players to carry the offence, every day of the week. The Habs play an entertaining and up-tempo style of hockey, as it should be, and if the special teams can hold their own, you have to think a ticket to the playoffs will be in the stars in 2020. The team’s thrilling 5-4 comeback victory over a tough Vegas squad late last month perhaps exemplified the intangible quality that’s likely to vault the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge into the playoffs mix again: there’s just no quit to this team.