Nothing says February in Montreal quite like boot-skating to the local sports bar across freeze-dried black ice thick enough to host a curling tournament for the chance to gather with friends over a few malt beverages and catch the Canadiens in action. And this year’s edition has made that perilous journey well worth the risk, showcasing an exciting brand of fast-paced hockey reminiscent of the Flying Frenchmen, or last season’s expansion Vegas Golden Knights, for those too young to remember. The Montreal Canadiens, the most decorated franchise in hockey history, a Cinderella team? I know: you can practically hear the ghosts of championships past moaning thinly in protest.
At first, the stretch run saw the Habs pick up where they left off – on a nice little roll – to strengthen their hold on the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. In doing so, they continued to draw converts to the “for real” tent, particularly after they took it to the mighty Winnipeg Jets using the same tried and true recipe that’s spelled success all season long: speed to burn, a ferocious forecheck and balanced attack, much-improved defence, and world-class goaltending. The Jets, for three periods, looked like they didn’t know what hit them, with the notable exception of Connor Hellebuyck, who was peppered with 53 shots, the most faced by a Jets’ goaltender this season.
The impressive victory over the Jets set up a hotly anticipated Saturday night matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs, arguably the most exciting team in hockey, with the Habs, the league’s second-youngest team, nipping at their heels in the standings. While the Canadiens again lost to the Leafs in overtime, looking outgunned, at times, by their supremely talented opponents, they still held the edge in play and could easily have won the game.
The six-point bulge over the Hurricanes has since shrunk to a single point, while the surging Bruins and Leafs have pulled away, leaving the Canadiens, Penguins, Hurricanes and Blue Jackets – and possibly the Flyers if they stay hot – to fight it out for the pair of Wild Card spots in the Eastern Conference. The Habs’ road-heavy schedule won’t play in their favour, with two more back-to-back sets on tap between now and March 8. But the Habs own a winning road record this year and they’ve been able to win clutch games at pivotal times over the course of the season: Tuesday’s cakewalk over the Red Wings – perhaps the biggest must-win of the season – was a prime example.
Since Shea Weber’s return to play in early December, the Habs’ defence has been among the stingiest in the league. Victor Mete, fresh off a short stint in Laval to get reacquainted with his game, may have convinced Marc Bergevin that a fishing expedition in the rental pool may not have been necessary after all. To make up for his generous size deficit, Mete is playing closer in coverage with tight gap control and a good stick while he uses elite-level speed and quickness – his greatest assets – to break free with clean zone exits and crisp first passes. Isn’t that what Bergevin was supposed to be looking for? Next up for Mete come the offseason: a month at slapshot camp.
In successive games against the league’s elite teams – the Jets, Leafs, Predators and (for two periods) the Lightning – the Habs again showed they can skate with anyone, and what they lack in star power they make up for by spreading the scoring evenly across the lineup, like well-buttered toast. Nine Habs were in double digits, at last count, and this year, in contrast to last, the regular passengers have left the bus. And sure, while the team stands little chance of beating those elite teams in a seven-game series – assuming they do make the playoffs, which is anything but a foregone conclusion – they are trending upwards, and they’re an easy team to cheer for: in hockey, as in all team sports, speed generates excitement, and the Habs have it spades.
There will be no tanking in Montreal as there was in Toronto, and just when you thought Bergevin could not be trusted to rebuild this still-proud franchise, he’s now in contention for GM of the Year, the newest and most ridiculous trophy in hockey.
Perhaps the short-lived Thomas Vanek experiment left the Canadiens’ GM with a case of cold feet, but his decision not to wade into the trade waters for a rental is the right one.
Patience is the watchword in Montreal.