The Montreal Canadiens closed out the first quarter of their calendar with their first losing streak of the season – a five-game skid that saw them slip down to the final wildcard spot in the hotly contested Eastern Conference and left fans to wonder whether all those dire preseason predictions of epic futility might finally come to pass.
Not surprisingly, the patchwork defence that held its own in the early going finally began to fray in the absence of Shea Weber, whose long-awaited return to active duty promised to restore some much-needed stability to the Habs’ beleaguered blueline. And Weber has done just that and then some: in only his second game back after injury, the Habs’ captain notched a pair of goals to lead the Canadiens to a 5-2 victory over the New York Rangers, and he’s since brought his less-than-Christmassy on-ice demeanour to bear on the crease area in front of Carey Price; with Weber patrolling the scene, squatters setting up shop in Price’s kitchen know they’ll be subjected to a uniquely Canadian form of corporal punishment from the best in the business.
Not too shabby for a 33-year-old shaking off a year’s worth of rust. Perhaps most impressive, there was no easing the veteran rearguard back into the lineup after the long layoff, no three-game conditioning stint in the minors. From the get-go, Weber has logged 25 minutes per game and counting which tells you all you need to know about the man. His presence alone makes the Canadiens a better team. Is it any coincidence that Carey Price’s recent renaissance has coincided largely with Weber’s return to action?
The Habs, with Weber in uniform, went on to record their second three-game winning streak of the season until a blowout loss in Minnesota served up a richly deserved wakeup call. Still, the Montreal Canadiens, as we live and breathe, are in the hunt for a playoff berth, and rather than stay the course with his reset, Marc Bergevin must now decide whether he can add a piece or two – a top-pairing puck mover to play alongside Weber and a big body with scoring touch up front (good luck with that) – to bolster his team’s playoff chances without selling the farm.
Bubble teams like the Habs present a unique existential dilemma for GMs, who are torn between sacrificing a piece of the future or (in Marc Bergevin’s case) sticking to what by most accounts was supposed to be a rebuild, but was carefully rebranded as a “reset.” Bergevin, by his own admission, will look instead to make creative use of the nearly $9.5 million in full-season cap space at his disposal to absorb a bad contract and add some depth to his forward group – which is the right thing to do. Because the Canadiens are not a player or two away from contention. Not yet, at least.
Another key to the Canadiens’ recent success has been the emergence of a legit fourth line led by newcomers Kenny Agostino and Michael Chaput. The two have added some 40-grit sandpaper to the lineup and allowed Claude Julien to keep his top-nine fresh. Credit AHL stalwart Agostino – who won the scoring title there as recently as 2016 – for understanding that a reduced role was his ticket back to the NHL. What he lacks in speed he makes up for with superior on-ice vision to go along with NHL-quality hands. Chaput – the swingman on the line when Nicolas Deslauriers draws in – skates like his hair’s on fire, and he’s been good in the faceoff circle and ferocious on the forecheck.
The brutal 4-0 loss to the Boston Bruins on home ice was hardly what the Habs’ coaching staff had in mind with the team set to embark on a crucial six-game road swing (with matching back-to-back and three-in-four sets against grade-A opposition) that could further strengthen their hold on a playoff spot or leave them on the outside looking in.
Three games in, the Habs have collected four of a possible six points including yet another come-from-behind victory, this time against a tough Vegas team that hadn’t lost when leading after two periods this season. In his post-game comments, Golden Knights’ bench boss Gerard Gallant said that the Canadiens were “probably the best team” to visit the T-Mobile Arena this season.
Better still, the long-dormant powerplay has finally shown signs of life, which may bode well for the post-Christmas leg of the trip.
The surprises, if you’re a Habs fan, just keep coming. And barring a rash of injuries to key players, there’s no reason to believe the 2018 Canadiens won’t continue to defy expectations well into the new year. Because as this year’s roster has shown us, there’s no accounting for the intangibles – heart, health, team unity, and above all, leadership – that to this day remain unmeasurable by the modern standards of advanced analytics.