Raphael Diaz (right) and Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens.
The Montreal Canadiens themselves have collectively been a pleasant surprise this season. It’s hard not to be when heading into the season most (including yours truly) expected them to just improve over a last-place finish last year, and let’s be honest: One’s not exactly going out on that much of a limb making that kind of prediction.
However, instead of simply improving, the Habs are currently holding down the first spot in the Eastern Conference. Needless to say, a playoff spot is well within reach.
In between lockouts, an average of 91 points were required to make the postseason in the East. Over a 48-game season, that equates to 53. As a result, the 14-5-4 Habs theoretically would require just 21 points over their remaining 25 games to make it and continue authoring what must be considered one of the most sensational single-season turnarounds in franchise history.
Here are the five other pleasant surprises that have helped them to make it this far:
Yes, power forward Rene Bourque does only have 10 points in 17 games this season, and, yes, he’s currently concussed, but watching him on the ice this season relative to last is like night and day.
He’s obviously producing more. I mean, it’s kind of hard not to when you only had eight points in 38 games last season. However, it’s the way he’s gone about getting his 10 points this season that is what’s actually impressive.
Before the injury, he was skating hard, going for loose pucks and going to the net when he didn’t have it. In short, he was the perfect complement to playmaking center Tomas Plekanec and diminutive right winger Brian Gionta on the team’s second line.
It’s almost a wonder he didn’t get hit on his head this past offseason.
Raphael Diaz (left) of the Montreal Canadiens.
While everyone smiles that defenseman Andrei Markov is healthy and scoring again, everyone knew that he was at least once capable of this kind of production (five goals and nine assists in 23 games). Conversely, few elsewhere in the National Hockey League even knew Raphael Diaz existed.
It’s kind of hard to consider someone you’re paying over $1 million annually found money, but that’s just what Diaz has become this season. In a word, he’s been a revelation.
While he is concussed currently and his production had slowed somewhat just beforehand, Diaz still has 13 points in 19 games, picking up right where he left off during the lockout (29 points in 32 games for the Swiss National League A’s EV Zug). He had 16 points all of last season, for crying out loud.
In addition, his defensive play has become more solid with a plus-five plus/minus rating relative to a minus-seven rating last season. Indeed, prior to the concussion, everything was coming together for him like a masterpiece crafted by the famous painter himself.
The only thing missing in his game really would be a little of the famous teenage mutant ninja turtle, if for nothing else sheer entertainment value. Habs fans would surely settle for a little more toughness in general.
Michael Ryder (falling down) of the Montreal Canadiens.
Prior to getting traded to the Dallas Stars, Erik Cole was having the type of season most were expecting him to have last year. So, while his career-high 35 goals were a pleasant surprise in 2011-12, it wasn’t a total shock to see the now-34-year-old beatup right winger, play like, well, a 34-year-old beatup right winger.
With just six points in 19 games, Cole clearly had little to contribute emotionally or on the scoreboard.
Even though Cole had just 10 points in 19 games last year before exploding for 51 in his last 63, his well-documented displeasure with the new collective bargaining agreement was a sign his heart just wasn’t in Montreal or hockey anymore.
So, for Montreal to get Michael Ryder, who had scored over double Cole’s amount of points, in exchange was huge. While many never thought he would again wear a Habs uniform and many never wanted him to following his last, horrible season here, under these circumstances he’s a welcome improvement. It’s a recurring theme with this trade.
That Montreal was able to get the Stars to throw in a draft pick speaks volumes to rookie general manager Marc Bergevin’s competence. That Montreal was able to in the process get Cole’s $4.5 million salary-cap hit off the books for the remainder of his four-year contract conversely speaks volumes to former general manager Pierre Gauthier’s incompetence.
After last weekend’s barn burner against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal had 64 goals in just 21 games. It’s admittedly nowhere close to the most in the Eastern Conference, as the Pens have upward of 80. It’s nonetheless an impressive feat to average over three per game, one that is an indication of just how deep this team is.
Including newcomers Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal has 10 forwards who are either playing top-six roles now or have earlier in their careers.
Of course, that depth would be all the more impressive if one substituted out Colby Armstrong for someone who could actually put the puck in the net currently. It’s probably healthy to be grateful for what you do have, though, even if that’s an undisciplined, overrated winger who needs Sidney Crosby as a center to put up half-decent numbers.
In any case, it’s all enough to make one stop and think just how much more dangerous the Habs would be had four-time-70-point scorer Scott Gomez not been bought out. Well, toxic rankness is a kind of danger, right?
Heading into this season it was hard enough to imagine last year’s third overall pick, Galchenyuk, staying past the five-game mark. Fewer still likely imagined the short-in-stature Gallagher, a former fifth-round pick, sticking with the team as well.
Yet, not only are both still here 20 games into the season, but they’re each key components of what has become for all intents and purposes a good hockey team.
Galchenyuk has 13 points in 23 games playing a largely defensive role. Gallagher, now playing on the team’s top line with Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais, has 13 (including six goals) in just 19 games.
As a result, it’s conversely become incredibly easy to imagine how worse off the Habs would be without them. Consequently, the top pleasant surprise of the Habs' season thus far is that the future of the organization keeps looking increasingly bright.