Montreal Canadiens David Desharnais (left) and Brian Gionta celebrate a goal.
The Montreal Canadiens may very well not win the Stanley Cup this year, but believe it or not, they are a legitimate threat to do just that.
No one could say that as recently as last season, when they finished last in the Eastern Conference, and no one without ESP had the crystal balls to say that entering this year. And yet, with 18 games remaining and 45 points already secured in the standings, the Habs could theoretically surpass their entire 78-point total from last year in 34 fewer games.
Admittedly, that is not very likely. With an active seven-game points streak, it would essentially mean them going 25 total games without losing in regulation. And, really, what are the chances of that happening? Twenty-four, c’mon...child’s play. Anyone can do 24. But 25? The fact that it’s even mathematically possible, though, is just insane.
The math further dictates the Habs currently need just 24 more points to clinch a playoff spot, and that’s only if the ninth-place 15-13-2 New York Rangers run the table the rest of the way. To put it in the proper perspective, that would require “Made (of Glass)” Marian Gaborik to first stay healthy and then actually show up for 18 straight games.
To a certain degree, it’s ironic seeing as most fans would have considered it very likely that the Rangers would be in Montreal’s spot in the standings currently (or at least have a similar 20-5-5 record) and that the Habs would have to count their lucky stars to just be where New York is. If everyone considered New York a legitimate threat way back when, sheer logic tells you Montreal is right now.
If you need further convincing, here are five other reasons the Habs are a legitimate threat in the East:
The Montreal Canadiens against the New York Rangers.
The Washington Capitals? Check. The Philadelphia Flyers? Check. The runner-up-to-the-Stanley Cup New Jersey Devils? Check. Twice, in fact. The supposed Stanley Cup-favorite New York Rangers? Twice as well.
Run down a list of the teams that were thought to be contenders entering this season and one will find that not only have they stumbled to varying degrees (of the above four, only the Devils currently hold down a playoff spot), but that the Habs have beaten most of them this year.
Let that sink in for a moment: Montreal has already beaten 13 different teams this year. Of course, part of that has to do with the 48-interconference-game schedule, but it’s nonetheless impressive.
This can only be interpreted one of two different ways. Either Montreal is a great team capable of beating anyone on any given night in the East, or everyone in the East is just that bad and Montreal still has a chance of beating anyone on any given night.
Break it down whichever way you like, but the fact of the matter is the only logical conclusion is that Montreal has a good chance of coming out of the East this year.
Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien (left) and general manager Marc Bergevin.
It’s official. Marc Bergevin is a good general manager. He may not be responsible for building this team, but he is responsible for its success.
Few aside from players, team officials and to a lesser extent the media may get to see firsthand how things are in the locker room. But one has to imagine, based on the culture of no one person being bigger than the team that he has tried to instill, that they are pretty good.
In his short time at the helm of the organization, he has signed David Desharnais, P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty to deals below their respective market values. He meanwhile was willing to pay Scott Gomez over $7 million just to stay home.
Sure, that’s in part because Bergevin didn’t want to risk him getting injured and then being unable to buy him out at the end of the season. More simply, though, Gomez was a detriment to the team.
He wasn’t contributing, and that meant he was simply more valuable sitting out rather than playing. Bergevin swallowed his pride (after having said months earlier that he wouldn’t buy him out, via Arpon Basu, Twitter) as well as the Gomez contract and made it happen—once the collective bargaining agreement was revised to allow teams to buy out players immediately rather than having to wait until the end of the season.
It may not have been the most fiscally sound decision, but it was to the benefit of the team as a whole. Predecessor Pierre Gauthier, conversely, once traded arguably his best player in Michael Cammalleri for expressing his anger at losing all the time to the media (apparently he was supposed to be happy about it), and did it all cloak-and-dagger like so as to get a relatively low return and make it so the Habs lost even more games. Genius.
While Gauthier was officially the team’s general manager when the Habs made it to the third round of the playoffs in 2009-10, he had his predecessor, Bob Gainey, who stayed on with the Habs as an advisor following his retirement, on which to fall back.
Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, that may be unfair criticism, as Bergevin also had Gainey on which to fall back a few weeks ago when he traded Erik Cole to the Dallas Stars for Michael Ryder and a third-round pick (Gainey is the Stars’ senior advisor to hockey operations).
Fast forward 10 games into his most recent stint with the Habs, and Ryder has three goals and seven assists. Cole has just two goals with Dallas. Nearing the trade deadline, Bergevin’s prowess on the phones so far has been an indication that the team is in good hands moving forward and not just for the remainder of the season.
Meanwhile, it’s Bergevin’s selection of Michel Therrien as head coach that is arguably paying the most dividends, and both deserve a large amount of credit for the team’s turnaround.
Therrien’s system may be defense-oriented and, according to goalie Henrik Lundqvist of those ninth-place Rangers, “extremely boring” (via the Montreal Gazette). However, it’s working—and not just by keeping opponents off the scoreboard.
Montreal Canadien Lars Eller in front of New Jersey Devil Johan Hedberg.
Now that Colby Armstrong has joined the ranks of the living and breathing by actually scoring, it’s hard to look up and down Montreal’s lineup and see a weak spot.
No, Armstrong won’t score every game (even if he is currently riding a two-game streak), but he is a former top-six forward with some defensive acumen. Add Travis Moen and you have two-thirds of a very capable fourth line that has the potential to put the puck in the net every so often.
Further up the lineup, Montreal has at the very least three very good No. 2 lines, if not a single top line and two others from which head coach Michel Therrien can expect reliable, secondary scoring.
Leading scorer Max Pacioretty may not place in the top 40 in the league in points right now, but Montreal still has the third-most goals in the Eastern Conference. The only way for both of these facts to be true is for the team to have an incredibly balanced scoring attack.
So, for example, Tampa Bay Lightning may boast the likes of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, with 40 and 39 points respectively. Tampa’s top five scorers even have more points than each of Montreal’s top five. However, in regard to scorers ranked six to 10, each of Montreal’s players has scored more.
The end result? Montreal has just one fewer goal this season than Tampa, and few will debate the Lightning’s offensive depth. It’s the kind of depth that is critical to success in the playoffs, when teams look to take their opposition’s top scoring threats out of the equation. It just becomes impossible if there are too many.
Of course, you have to make the playoffs first to prove that theory. Tampa, meanwhile, serves as proof that scoring alone does not guarantee a playoff spot. Thankfully for Montreal, the Habs have been far from a one-trick pony this year.
Buffalo Sabre Drew Stafford tries to outplay Montreal Canadien Carey Price.
There’s little minimizing Carey Price’s league-leading 16 wins. If one were to try, however, they would start with his 14th-best 2.34 goals-against average and his 23rd-best .912 save percentage.
Considering Price has two shutouts this season, it’s clear Montreal has earned at least a few points this season despite shaky goaltending. One of those points came against the Pittsburgh Penguins a few weeks ago, a game that Montreal lost 7-6 in overtime.
Needless to say, Price looked out of position most of that night, and the 60 minutes of hockey (just over 60 minutes, actually) did not comprise his finest hour.
However, if Montreal can take the team currently in first place in the conference to the limit, in spite of bad goaltending, there’s no good reason why the Habs can’t be considered a legitimate threat in their own right this year.
Looking at it another way, most everyone picked the Pittsburgh Penguins as Stanley Cup favorites this year knowing their goaltending was a glaring weakness. Not only does Carey Price have better stats than both Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun, the Habs have a generally more well-rounded lineup than the Pens as well.
Of course, given the choice, any team would be crazy to turn down having both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their lineup at the expense of depth on its wings. The point remains if scoring a lot of goals to cover up holes in the net has worked for Pittsburgh, to the point of bringing the city a Stanley Cup a few years back, it can theoretically work for Montreal.
Brian Gionta takes a check from Nashville Predator Sergei Kostitsyn.
Despite their lack of size, the Habs have a lot of fight in them.
Averaging just 5’11” up front, Montreal will no doubt have a hard time beating bigger opponents in the playoffs, but it doesn’t mean they’re not capable. Everything up to this point has proven the team is at least up to the challenge.
Injuries have actually become a factor, and yet, Montreal has kept winning.
Not only that, but the injuries have been to a top-four defenseman (Raphael Diaz; concussion), a top-six forward (Rene Bourque; concussion) and a heart-and-soul grinder whose job description is to protect the team’s better players (Brandon Prust; shoulder).
Also consider that Prust (6’2”, 195 lbs.) is one of Montreal’s bigger, tougher forwards and Rene Bourque (6’2”, 213 lbs.) is the biggest (with exception to Mike Blunden, who was recently called up and is 6’4”, 214 lbs.).
Granted, the playoffs are a different animal than the regular season, and things may play out differently then, but Montreal is 4-0-1 since Prust got injured, 8-1-2 since Diaz did and 9-1-3 since Bourque did.
This points to a great deal of organizational depth and, yes, as clichéd as it may sound, heart. In each of the last two games, Montreal faced a deficit but either ended up losing in overtime or winning altogether.
Similarly, against the Lightning on March 9, Montreal was down 3-1 in the third period but ended up scoring three unanswered to take it in regulation.
Sure, it was Tampa, but what if the opponent had been Boston? Down 3-2 in the third period against the Bruins on March 3, the Habs scored twice to win 4-3.
Of course, Zdeno Chara was off with a game misconduct for both of those goals, but what if the opponent was Pittsburgh?
Just one night earlier, down 4-2 in the second period against the Pens, Montreal scored three straight to take the lead, ultimately earning a point in the aforementioned 7-6 overtime loss.
Admittedly, Evgeni Malkin wasn’t playing that game. But there comes a point when it stops being just about sheer luck and starts being about the makeup of the team and the individuals on it. How many examples does one need to realize the Habs are for real?