In an unexpected turn of events, the Montreal Canadiens entered the second month of the NHL calendar sporting a sterling 6-2-2 record, but looking ahead, with the Stars, Caps and Lightning all slated to visit the Bell Centre within a week, you couldn’t fault fans of the bleu-blanc-rouge for wondering whether the team’s tenure near the top of the Eastern Conference standings would end as quickly as it began. After all, Habs fans have seen this movie before: as recently as 2015, the Canadiens reeled off a team-record nine straight wins to start the season and led the Eastern Conference standings as late as the merry month of December, when the wheels fell off in the wake of a season-ending injury to Carey Price, the world’s top goaltender at the time. The following season, fans will recall, the Canadiens and a still-dominant Carey Price appeared poised to make a deep playoff run, when 220 pounds of Chris Kreider ended it all with a tootsies-first slide straight out of the Manny Machado playbook.
Price has not been the same goaltender since.
In that first week of November, the Habs only victory came against a battle-tested Washington Capitals team, in what was easily the most exciting game at the Bell Centre in recent memory. Perhaps most encouraging, they roared back from a two-goal deficit to defeat the reigning Stanley Cup champions, with the game-winner, scored by a resurgent Max Domi, coming in the dying seconds of the game. Through the first 17-or-so games of the season, the Canadiens were among the highest-scoring teams in the Eastern Conference, on an equal footing with the arch-rival Toronto Maple Leafs. Five on five, no team has scored more goals than your Montreal Canadiens.
Even in a losing cause – the game against Tampa was a good example – the Habs continued to deploy their speed game to gain the edge in play, only to be done in by momentum-killing penalties and less-than-stellar goaltending from Carey Price. The scoring most predicted would be sadly absent has come from some unexpected sources, starting with newcomers Domi and (to a lesser extent) Tomas Tatar, who’ve gone about making Marc Bergevin look like the second coming of Sam Pollock. Domi, in particular, has been a revelation, showing the kind of intelligence and creativity that made him a first-round pick, with a healthy dose of the trademark Domi truculence thrown in for good measure (the Domis, surprisingly, are of Swiss stock: so much for Swiss pacifism).
Jonathan Drouin’s offensive resurgence has everything to do with Domi bringing out the best in the talented Quebecer, forcing him to elevate his play; when Drouin plays up to his vast potential, he can be a game-breaker. His defensive awareness remains a work in progress – which is the charitable explanation – but we’ll take it provided he can put up 60-plus points a year.
The Habs’ victories have come against some A-list NHL squads, including Pittsburgh (twice), Washington and Vegas. And they’ve done it all, on most nights, with subpar goaltending and suspect defence. If Carey Price can rediscover his game – and he’s shown signs of coming around, putting up a 43-save performance in Calgary to steal the second leg of the West Coast trip – and Shea Weber returns and plays to form, the Habs, in theory, could continue to surprise. Speaking of surprises, Jesperi Kotkaniemi has shown the hockey world he has no business playing anywhere but in the NHL, and the kid’s just scratching the surface…
One glaring sore spot in this still-young season: the still-punchless powerplay. The Habs miss a triggerman, and Weber’s imminent return will give them just that—the league’s uncontested Big Bertha from the blueline.
To put an exclamation mark on their impressive start, the Canadiens took four of a possible six points on the West Coast – where Montreal hockey hopes typically go to die – and flew home to Quebec in far better shape than anyone could have predicted. The growing sense, based on mounting evidence, is that Bergevin’s reset has radically changed the complexion of the team, with the accent on tenacious puck pursuit, overwhelming speed and a balanced attack up and down the lineup. And where last season’s Canadiens folded at the first sign of adversity, this year’s Habs, to date, are the NHL’s cardiac kids, posting a league-high five come-from-behind victories.
With the crucial first quarter-season now on the books, the Montreal Canadiens are now in the conversation as one of the league’s exciting young teams. And while most would agree the future isn’t quite now, there’s a growing body of evidence, both in Montreal and through the pipeline, to suggest it might be a damned sight closer than many of us imagined.