HabsWorld.net -- 

The Habs are arguably playing their best hockey in years with a record of 15-6-4-1 since that epic outdoor game, but are the Canadiens true contenders in the east, or is this just an aberration of their season leaving Montreal fans with bitter disappointment come April and beyond? With 8 points separating the Habs from 9th place as of January 15th, they are currently comfortably in the playoffs, but how long will it last?

Currently the Canadiens posses a few much needed components for a successful run in the playoffs. Defensemen Sheldon Souray is a stalwart defencemen. When is the last time a team won the Stanley Cup without a top defencemen? Well New Jersey had a Martin Brodeur, but Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer were both key players in their Stanley cup runs of the past few years. Detroit won the Cup with versatile Niklas Lidstrom and veteran Chris Chelios. Colorado had Blake, Bourque and Foote. Dallas had Hatcher and Zubov. The Habs have a great player in Souray, but after him it gets a little thinner. Brisebois has had a tremendous year, but he is no Niedermayer. Markov was great a year ago but has yet to show last season’s form and is currently on the injured list. The fact is, Montreal may have to wait a couple of years before they have a great top 3. Youngster Mike Komisarek first comes to mind as he is developing nicely with the big club, improving at a slow and steady rate. Another young blueliner, Ron Hainsey, has struggled at times but is enjoying tremendous success with Hamilton so far this year. Unless Bob Gainey makes a big time move (don’t count on it) the Habs will have to be patient and wait for help from these two prospects.

Again, as it has been for years, size is a common criticism of the Canadiens. The Habs have a formidable one-two punch up the middle, but both lack size. Saku Koivu stands at only 5’10” and 182 pounds while Mike Ribeiro is just 5’11” and 175 pounds. On the wings there isn’t a lot of size either. Save for 6’5” Pierre Dagenais, not one Hab on the top two lines is above 6 feet. The good news is that these players do display a solid amount of grit. Koivu displays a never-say-die attitude, and Ribeiro has begun to follow in his footsteps. Ribeiro has been spotted in the middle of several scrums in front of the net, something you probably wouldn’t have seen much of last year. Zednik is a workhorse who has the ability to drive to the net at any time. Jan Bulis is a speedster who can throw his body around if he needs to and Michael Ryder has shown a knack for being able to dig pucks out of the corners and get to the front of the net in his rookie season. As far as the third and fourth lines go, Jason Ward and Chad Kilger have size, but for the latter it is more a question of heart. When Steve Begin returns he should be back to his normal gritty self and Darren Langdon has given the Habs a fighter that should be feared by most teams.

A final component that every team needs to compete in the NHL is an area in which the Canadiens are quite comfortable. After a down year in 2002-2003, Jose Theodore is back and has displayed the form that made him the league’s most valuable player two years ago. With a sparkling 2.02 GAA and a wicked .929 save percentage, Theodore has once again found himself at or near the pinnacle of NHL goaltenders. Theodore has already single handedly upset the number seeded Bruins back in the 2002 playoffs before the wheels fell off in the “Miracle at Molson” against Carolina. This is one area where the Habs hope they will not have to worry about for a long time. 

So what is the verdict? Are the Habs contenders this year or will fans have to continue to be patient? Well, the answers could be discovered over the next 8 games where the Canadiens will face-off against such Eastern Conference foes as the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins. Claude Julien‘s team motto for his players is “Happy but not Satisfied.” Perhaps this phrase should not only be true for the players and coaches, but also for the fans.