Ok maybe not quite “By Storm” but It’s still early in the season and yet far too late for the last 10 teams who have fallen victim to the Canadiens speed and skill, giving them one of their best starts ever. Yes, its true that in some games it seemed as if the Canadiens wanted to lose, only to pull it out at the end of regulation or in overtime, but this seems to be the style in the NHL now where comebacks are a nightly occurrence; or maybe the old ghosts of the forum have finally found the address of the Bell Centre.
The quick start seems to have somewhat surprised the majority of the hockey world, but naturally, not the Canadiens coaching staff, management, players or their fans. What’s the uncomplicated truth behind the success of the Habs first 10 wins?
Talent can hurt, but speed kills.
Most hockey pundits and experts had Montreal pegged for either missing the post-season outright or fighting to barely scrape into the 7th or 8th position. This prediction comes from underestimating the effect tough rule enforcement would have on a speedy and highly skilled team that had already finished as the 7th seed in the last NHL season without a full season of services from the versatile Mathieu Dandenault and superstar Alexei Kovalev.
Right from the start, the mention of the “new rules” and their enforcement throughout the NHL, GM Bob Gainey [as well as the players] and head coach Claude Julien have been telling various media outlets that the rules would greatly benefit teams like the Canadiens, Senators, Canucks and others that rely on a fast, skill style game; it shows in the standings for all three teams.
As expected, power plays are a big part of the game, and while consistency from the officiating staff still lacks a bit, they are determining factors in winning games so far in this NHL season. The Canadiens power play doesn’t lead the league at this point, but they aren’t last either; however this is not the reason they are winning games. The main reason the rules benefit the team and why they are winning games is puck control. It is hard for the opposition to score goals or control the flow of the game when they are chasing the Canadiens puck carriers who can burn you when you make the smallest mistake.
“It’s always hard to play against the smaller, faster kind of players no matter how the rules are called because you can’t catch them. “Now that you can’t put a stick on them or tie them up to slow them down it makes it that much harder” quips Alex Kovalev who has clearly benefited from the new crackdown on interference by averaging a point per game.
Another part of the formula for success so far is the play of the young guns inserted into the lineup.
Contrary to popular belief throughout the NHL that the Canadiens are “rebuilding” to some degree, it would be closer to the truth to call it ‘overdue’ for some prospects to make a significant contribution to the team. The injection of youth that the Canadiens have added this season has worked well to date with what looks to be good rookie seasons for Streit, Plekanec, Higgins and Perezhogin; after 2, 3, and 4 seasons spent honing their skills, they should be ready to make an impact on the big team. While some feel that Chris Higgins and Tomas Plekanec have earned more ice time with their energetic and smart game, it’s hard to change a winning combination right now.
Realistically it isn’t feasible to accommodate the fans, media, and the dreams of budding NHL stars by trading your proven talent away to make room for players suddenly being NHL ready. The selections to fill the open roster spots the Habs made for this season have proven to be good choices, and yet there were still some who would have made the team if more positions were available. The trade involving Marcel Hossa is one example as he looked to finally be having a breakout year. Yet he was traded because of the limited positions available and complications with waivers. The Canadiens will be reaping the rewards of such a deep prospect pool for years to come, as planned, and the fans are excited to think about the solid future of this team.
This early season success doesn’t guarantee the team will coast through the season and grab a home ice position for the playoffs. There will undoubtedly be ups and downs throughout the season for Habs veterans and rookies alike, but the good sign is that the coaching staff and players are all on the same page. Wasting early season points that could be crucial to the playoff race while they find their stride is not something you can afford to do in the tough Northeast division.
At the start of the season the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators were the odds on favorites to take home Lord Staley’s fabled Cup. Not much has changed since then, but the Canadiens have established themselves as a very dangerous team that can beat anyone on any given night. A lot can change during the course of a season, but it is hard to imagine that such a skilled and fast team would not be able to play at least .500 hockey throughout a 64 game schedule. I consider the 05/06 season as a 64 game schedule because I feel that the playoff lives [and playoff position for that matter] of the Canadiens lies within the 16 games [32 points available] to be played against the Leafs and Senators. To date the Canadiens are a respectable 1-2-1 versus both Toronto and the power house Ottawa Senators, and a fantastic 10-3-1 overall. These early season points will help when the playoffs are closing in.
The one glaring weakness thus far is where we are supposed to be strongest: in goal. Jose Theodore has been inconsistent so far this season and yet the Canadiens still hold one of the best records in hockey. Sure Theo has had some games where he was brilliant, but the Jose that played in Europe last lear has yet to be seen. If he can find his game and have this start be his only “down” this season, he and the rest of the Canadiens should have the other NHL teams scared, and Habs fans elated.