The Montreal Canadiens celebrate a victory.
Currently 5-4, just one game off last season’s shocking 6-3 start, the 2013-14 Montreal Canadiens are surprising so-called experts yet again.
One would think that the last-ever Northeast Division champions would have earned some respect, and yet they were picked by many as a bubble team that could very well miss the playoffs.
Granted, that may be in part because, after building up a 20-5-5 record last season, they finished the season with a mediocre 9-9 stretch, before bowing out quietly in the first round of the playoffs in just five games. Here are the five ways this edition of the team has improved and is most likely to avoid that same collapse:
The Canadiens’ 81.6 percent penalty-kill efficiency is nothing to write home about, but it is nonetheless an improvement over last season’s 79.8 percent.
It may not seem like much, but consider that the Habs were shorthanded a total of 315 times during the 2011-12 season (the last full, 82-game season). As such, the mere 1.8 percent difference between this and last year’s success rate translates into approximately six less goals over an entire season.
Any one of those six hypothetical goals could end up costing the Habs a game this season (if not more). All the Habs have to do to avoid that fate is maintain that mediocre 81.6 success rate, which shouldn’t be that difficult.
What is also somewhat eye-opening are the Habs’ three shorthanded goals through nine games of the season, especially when they had none at all in 2013.
Admittedly, one of those was into an empty-netter and another might as well have been considering the lack of effort that went into beating the goalie on the play.
Any opposing teams aware of this fact may not see it as justification enough to take the Habs’ otherwise ordinary penalty-killing prowess all that seriously, but that may play all the more to Montreal’s advantage.
In any case, a team’s penalty kill can only be as strong as its best penalty-killer, and in the Habs’ case, at least in the early going, goaltender Carey Price has been pretty strong.
Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price and Winnipeg Jets forward Devin Setoguchi.
Price slides into the No. 4 spot with his great play through eight games played. His 4-4 record might not do his overall body of work justice, but his .932 save percentage does.
While his numbers through eight games last year were nothing at which to scoff (6-2, 15 goals against on 218 shots for a .931 save percentage) either, his play infamously dropped off down the stretch. As a result, his play so far this season can only be considered an incredible improvement overall.
In fact, it was, coincidentally, his ninth game, a 6-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 8, that his numbers first started to average out.
What’s even more of a coincidence is that it was his final eight games of the season, during which he went 2-6 and had an .856 save percentage, that ultimately defined his mediocre season despite the great start.
Admittedly, there’s little guarantee that Price remains consistently incredible throughout this current campaign. New goaltending coach Stephane Waite may help in that regard, as should the motivation to perform well ahead of the Olympics.
His play currently, however, with two regular defensemen (Douglas Murray and Alexei Emelin) out of the lineup, should be the biggest reason for optimism.
That final, horrible stretch of his 2012-13 season actually coincided perfectly with the loss of defenseman Alexei Emelin to a knee injury. That Emelin is still out of the lineup currently points, at least superficially, to this year turning out differently.
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Alexei Emelin and Boston Bruins forward Shawn Thornton.
Without Emelin in the lineup last year, the Habs were 4-6 (5-10 including the playoffs). In sharp contrast, the team is 5-4 under very similar circumstances, with Emelin only scheduled to return in late November. Needless to say, some much-needed adjustments must have been made over the summer.
Montreal’s defense, beyond Emelin, suffered from an inherent lack of physicality last year. Emelin, in fact, led the entire team in terms of hits with 110 in 38 games, meaning a player who was healthy for only 80 percent of the season still outhit everyone else. What’s sadder is that he outhit everyone by a wide margin.
Now, teams big on possession shouldn’t theoretically have a need to hit that much (if the opposition doesn’t have the puck, you can’t hit them). Still, the next highest hit total belonging to a Hab should not have been 87 (21 percent less). It also should not have belonged to Brandon Prust, who also only played 38 games.
Nine games in may be too soon to truly tell beyond a shadow of a doubt that there’s been a culture shift in regard to physicality in the team’s dressing room. However, winning without Emelin, Douglas Murray and George Parros speaks to a previously unseen level of character in this team.
To further illustrate the point, Lars Eller currently has 17 hits in the first eight games of the season, only two off the league lead of 19. It admittedly puts Eller on pretty much the same pace as last year (86), but that he particularly leads the team in that category (among others) speaks to something greater.
Montreal Canadiens Michael Bournival (left), Lars Eller and Brendan Gallagher celebrate a goal.
With 21 points over the past 21 contests dating back to last season, Eller isn’t necessarily representative of a changing of the guard up front, but rather the team’s offensive depth overall.
One weapon of many, he just seems to be maturing at the perfect time (physically at least, considering his ill-advised, unprovoked shot at the Edmonton Oilers prior to Tuesday night’s 4-3 loss).
Now, the long-term ramifications of injuries to Max Pacioretty and Brandon Prust admittedly remain to be seen (while, all due respect to him, a Daniel Briere-less lineup shouldn’t be all that different from what fans have seen all year long).
In theory, two top six lines nevertheless remain intact, which is quite impressive considering the seven Habs on the shelf. And the fact remains that Montreal is still averaging over three goals per game.
By all accounts, the Habs won’t be able to sustain the 3.22 per-game clip at which they’ve been scoring thus far. However, at this point last year, the Habs had scored just 27 goals in nine games, only to end the year with 146 total tallies (3.04).
Of note, for six of those nine games last year, the Habs were without holdout P.K. Subban, who still ended up trailing only Pacioretty in points on the year (38 versus 39).
Subban, it should be further noted, is one Hab who isn’t injured currently. What he is, however, is leading the team (and all defensemen) in scoring (11), proving Habs opponents have much more to worry about than just Montreal’s weapons up front.
Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban and Edmonton Oilers forward David Perron.
Players like Subban and Eller are key parts of Montreal’s core. And at just 24 years of age each, they are part of an underlying trend. Montreal’s average age is 28.1 (on opening night), but that is slightly misleading.
Excluding the 33-year-old Murray, the 33-year-old Parros and the 36-year-old Briere, each of whom were acquired at their current ages to improve the club (in theory at least), the Habs only boast three players out of their prime in their mid- to late 30s.
They are Andrei Markov (34), Brian Gionta (34) and Francis Bouillon (38). That’s it. Everyone else on this roster is 31 and younger, and even that statement doesn’t paint a wholly accurate picture in regard to the age of the team’s core moving forward.
Alex Galchenyuk is 19. Brendan Gallagher is 21. Pacioretty is 24. Price is 26. Raphael Diaz is 27. Ditto for Emelin. Josh Gorges just turned 29. These are all players emerging as key components of a successful hockey team, and, with exception to the latter, none are technically in their prime yet.
Compared to last season, all these players are one year older and, one would hope even taking into account Eller’s pregame gaffe Tuesday, one year wiser.
Mistakes obviously happen, but this group of players seems capable of learning from the ones made down the stretch last season, of which there were admittedly many. They might not have the respect of analysts and opposing teams, but they’ll clearly earn it soon enough.