Montreal Canadiens celebrate a goal.
This Thanksgiving the Montreal Canadiens have a lot for which to be thankful. Granted, Canadian Thanksgiving was mid-October, at which point the Habs were right in the middle of their longest winning streak of the season (four games), but it’s not really a competition, now is it?
If it was, though, American Thanksgiving would still arguably be coming out ahead. Not only are they in the midst of a three-game winning streak with the last-place Buffalo Sabres coming up Wednesday night, but they’re facing much easier Eastern Conference competition the rest of the way, up until 2014.
Put simply, holiday or not for them, there’s plenty of reason for the Habs to celebrate. Here are the top five reasons:
Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty celebrates a goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
There’s just something about playing in the NHL’s East. Just ask the Detroit Red Wings, whom one would have thought would be running away with the conference after switching sides over the summer. Instead they’ve dropped down a peg (or two or three) to everyone else’s level of competition.
Not only are the Wings not the best team in the conference, they’re not even the best team in the Atlantic Division. Not only are they not the best team in the Atlantic, they’re in danger of missing the playoffs altogether.
Meanwhile, the Habs are 13-9-2 right now. While that isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, it admittedly isn’t awe-inspiring (and far from the 15-5-4 record they had at this point last season). They still currently hold a playoff spot, albeit the last one, one point behind Detroit, but with one game in hand.
Nevertheless, they are just six points back of the first-place Boston Bruins. It’s not a bad position to be in, and by “position” I of course mean geographically speaking, as, were the Habs playing in the West, they wouldn’t even be in the playoffs if they started today. Instead they’d be in ninth, four points out of eighth!
Not only that, but the only reason the Habs are as low in the Eastern Conference standings right now is because of the new seeding system that has each division’s top three teams form the top six. The fifth-best team in the Atlantic, the Habs actually have the sixth-best record.
So, maybe if they’re being picky, the Habs would ask Santa to magically switch over to the Metropolitan Division for Christmas. On the other hand, though, in the Atlantic they do have the benefit of facing two of the league’s three worst teams fairly regularly.
The Montreal Canadiens next face the New York Islanders on December 14.
One of those three worst teams is Buffalo at 5-19-1 (The Florida Panthers are 7-13-5). The Sabres are actually the worst overall, and the Habs thankfully get to face them five times the rest of the way starting this Wednesday night.
Obviously, two points are far from in the bank as Montreal can ill afford to take any opponent for granted, but there’s little else the Habs can really ask for, especially seeing as this game represents the first of a particularly easy stretch in the calendar for them.
From now until December 31, the Habs play 17 games, with two against the Sabres and two against the Panthers.
More than that, 10 games overall are against teams below them in the standings. Of the remaining seven games, two are against the Steven Stamkos-less Tampa Bay Lightning and the Washington Capitals, who actually have less points than the Habs.
While the Habs’ previously mentioned record is only a decent 13-9-2, they’ve clearly been very good in Santa’s eyes.
Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty celebrating a goal.
After leading the Habs in points for two straight seasons, Max Pacioretty entered last Tuesday’s games against the Minnesota Wild with a dreadful two goals (and four points) in 12 games. Suddenly, he’s on pace for 34 goals after scoring five in his last three, including a natural hat trick against the Wild.
More than that, his linemate David Desharnais has come alive as well, with three points in those three games, including his first goal of the season against the Washington Capitals. Even free-agent bust Daniel Briere has scored points in four of his last six games since returning from a concussion.
So, with 12 goals overall in their last three games, all signs point to Montreal finally having three lines going, when so far all season they’d had only two and never at the same time. And, unbelievably, all it took was reuniting Brendan Gallagher with his linemates from last season.
Who knew fixing something that wasn’t broken could lead to such huge problems and just 18 goals in their past 11 games just before these last three? Apparently head coach Michel Therrien. But he’s got the message now, so yet another thing for which to be thankful.
Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price in front of New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello
While having your starting goalie head oversees for the Winter Olympics is not something an NHL team truly wants, the Montreal Canadiens can nonetheless be thankful that Carey Price has at least put himself in a position to do just that.
Really, Montreal’s goaltending as a whole, including backup Peter Budaj, has been spectacular. Montreal trails just the Boston Bruins in goals against per game with 2.04 (Boston has allowed just 1.83).
Price’s numbers (.935 save percentage) have meanwhile been far and away better than his main competitors for the starting job for Canada at the Olympics, i.e., Braden Holtby (.925), Roberto Luongo (.914), Mike Smith (.912) and Corey Crawford (.908).
So, while Price may very well end up risking injury oversees this winter to represent Canada, the Habs must nonetheless be very happy with his performance, seeing as it’s been night and day relative to the end of last season when he allowed 13 goals in just four playoff games.
Another sign that this year won’t end up like last? While Price started last season on fire as well with 14 goals against in his first eight games (he allowed 18 in his first eight this year), by the time his 19th game rolled around he had allowed 45. Right now he has allowed just 39 (same amount of games).
While he was almost otherworldly to start last season, the simple truth is he’s been more consistent—and consistently spectacular at that—so far in 2013-14. After he ended last season injured on the shelf, this wasn’t even a best-case scenario that the Habs could so much as dream up.
Montreal Canadiens forward Daniel Briere (left) celebrates a goal with captain Brian Gionta.
Price is obviously healthy, but so is the rest of the lineup, which could at least partially explain their current three-game winning streak, comprising victories over such stiff competition as the Minnesota Wild, Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins.
After being forced to deal with injuries to Alexei Emelin, Douglas Murray, George Parros, Max Pacioretty, Brandon Prust and Daniel Briere to start the season, the Habs are completely healthy again, giving fans hope that their 13-9-2 record isn’t an accurate reflection of just how good the team can be.
With 106 man games lost due to injury through November 24 (fourth-most in the entire league), the Habs being as mediocre (but not bad) as they have been is actually a positive sign for the rest of the season.
While Davis Drewiske is technically still suffering from a shoulder injury sustained during training camp, as a mere insurance policy he ironically only would have made it into the lineup at the start of the season when everyone else was injured.
That unfortunately says a great deal about his value to the team when he can’t even be relied on to be a good depth defenseman, but it’s cruelly clear that the now-healthy Habs are doing just fine without him.