The Montreal Canadiens have had a very successful first 32 games. The obvious culprits are to blame. Improved defensive play and a fantastic start from young goalie Carey Price are the two biggest factors in this early season surge.
The Canadien's offense on the other hand has been mediocre. Eighty-five goals-for has them tied for 16th in league scoring with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Tomas Plekanec is the teams leading scorer with almost a point a game. His 27 points leave him tied for 34th in league scoring. Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta lead the team with 11 goals scored. Andrei Kostitsyn who currently has scored nine goals looks like the only other Canadien likely to score more than 20 this year.
Jeff Halpern has proven to be an able third-line checker. His success in the faceoff circle has been a boost for a team that has struggled. Halpern has also provided some much needed secondary scoring from the checking line with six goals and 16 points in 32 games.
Recently rookie Lars Eller was teamed with another second line reject Benoit Pouliot and Mathieu Darche to form a consistent fourth line in Montreal. They have played together for weeks now averaging 10 minutes a game.
Since Eller finally scored his first NHL goal versus LA in the last week of November the line has been on what a constitutes a tear for a group of players that averages 10-and-a-half-minutes of ice-time per night. They have played well generating offensive chances and they are starting to bury those chances.
The line-mates have scored 17 points in the Canadien's last 11 games. They have scored five of Montreal's 25 goals in December. Twenty five percent of the team's scoring from a group playing a sixth of a game's ice time represents some unexpected tertiary scoring in the lineup.
Since the ill-fated George Laraque experiment the Canadiens have run their team with no actual goon to do their fighting. This has resulted in more ice-time for players who can play the game.
This line has matched up well against other teams fourth-line players. Most teams aren't populating their fourth line with first-round picks the way the Habs are now and the plus/minus numbers are showing it.
Lars Eller has skated well. The young skinny playmaker has been surprisingly strong on the puck. The weakness in his game becomes apparent when he tries to shoot. He shoots the puck like an old Scott Gomez. Another center who can't score and who has as much trouble in the faceoff circle as Lars does may be too big a burden for Montreal to carry long term.
Still despite his poor offensive numbers (two goals, four assists) Eller has looked good on the ice and is still a plus-one.
Pouliot has the best offensive numbers of the three line-mates. He has shown flashes of brilliance this year. He showed similar flashes last year, but that skill seemed to go away when faced with better or more determined opposition. Last year in the playoffs he was in 18 games and only managed two assists.
Playing against other team's fourth lines, however, he has looked more like the second coming of Mark Messier. Despite what can be called spotty defensive play at best, he is a plus-four. His seven goals and 17 points put him fifth in team scoring. The level of play he's managed has resulted in some well-deserved power play time.
When he's on Pouliot is the big speedy sniper the Canadiens so desperately need. He has been one of the team leaders in hits this year. Unlike when Brian Gionta or Andrei Kostitsyn hits you, Pouliot makes an impression. The Canadiens need Benoit to be on, all year long.
The third line member, Mathieu Darche, is what you would call an actual traditional fourth-line player. The 34-year-old is neither speedy nor big. He has sub-par hands and a so-so shot. Yet Mathieu works harder than just about anyone on the team. He is defensively responsible.
Darche has also earned some time on the power play and he's cashed in when there. He's a plus-eight so far this year.
The success of the fourth line in Montreal has allowed them to rotate four lines throughout a game. Hopefully, by the end of the year, this results in a healthier more rested group of forwards.
To succeed, the Canadiens need more scoring from their first two lines, but any scoring they can find is a bonus. Right now, the fourth line is providing key goals and helping Montreal stay on top of their division.