After being slated for battling deadlast in just about every pre-season report this season, the Montreal Canadiens not only have proven the critics wrong, but really have nothing to complain about.
Since the beginning of time the Canadiens have been one of the NHL premier franchises as far as fan base is concerned. Since day one the Habs fans have found reasons to complain, anything sort of the Stanley Cup is unacceptable. Their fans have been known for being very out spoken for every aspect of the team. From their farm team not producing enough products, to the Captain not respecting their culture, to the GM not bringing in the talent to compete. This off-season and season has been no different. The Habs have been calling the Bob Gainey's head after he was unsuccessful in bringing in home grown talent Daniel Briere this off-season, or anything other then Smolinski and Hamrlik. To go along with the fact that he was unable to dump Alex Kovalev the poster boy for failure at the time for Habs fans. To go along with around 99% of hockey writers out there writing off the Habs this season, the fan were furious.
So as the season began their was much to be desired in the eyes of the fans. Most of the focus went to Smolinski as Gainey's only FA acquisition to solve the Habs poor offense. Along with new comer Carey Price, sophmore Gulliame Latendresse, the return of Michael Ryder, their scape goat Alex Kovalev, and their Captain Saku Koivu. The habs faithful were still believing that their team would capture their 25th cup this season. To this I even heard Habs fans saying that they rather have Price then Crosby, or that Latendresse is the team's saviour as they compare him to Maurice "le Rocket" Richard. Many argument were brought up over these any many more statements as the season started out.
As October rolled in the Habs started off the season with a win in Carolina but a loss to their hated rivals, the Maple Leafs of Toronto. The end of October say the Habs sitting with 6 wins out of 11 games, including a 4 game winning streak. The fans were mildly happy, but mainly from the 4 game winning streak that showed their team can win consecutive games.
Unlike October the Habs were completely inconsistent, as they were unable to win more then one game in a row, as the habs literally had a win, loose, win, loose result throughout the entire month. This month saw another loss to Toronto, 2 losses to Buffalo and Ottawa, but 5 and 7 goal games in Philly and Boston respectively. The Habs were never able to gain any momentum, but never went into a loosing streak and some how managed to hang around the top of the North East division, just points behind Ottawa.
December saw a little more consistency as the Habs were able to win back to back games twice, but also saw a couple mini loosing streaks. Loosing to teams that they should be able to beat (Nashville, Florida, Tampa) is never easy to grasp, but were able to beat division rivals Leafs and Bruins. This time of year the Canadiens were called out by Hall of Famer and former Habs Guy "the Flower" LeFleur. The Habs legend had said the problem with the Habs is that they have four lines of four line caliber players. A sentiment retold for the last couple of seasons by the Canadiens' fan-base. Yet the Canadiens were sitting not only in a playoff spot but in 4th in the East for most of the month.
So far this month, the Habs have had the same sort of results, win one, loose one, win one. There team has no momentum, they are not winning a lot, but they are not loosing alot either.
On the player side of things, the Habs' fan's old scape goat (Kovalev) has turn out his best season in a couple of years as he leads the team in goals, points, and power play goals. Corey Price turned in a better then expected season, but was recently sent down to play more game in the farm. Huet isn't quite up to his old form, but still the number one in net for the Canadiens. Michael Ryder was been dropped to the 2nd line, 3rd line then 4th line and isn't a scoring threat anymore. Expect him to be gone by the trade deadline. They have been getting good seasons out of Plekanec, Koivu and Higgins. Danny Markov is once again a scoring threat this season from the Blueline. Just as happy the Habs are with Price, they couldn't be any happier with Mark Streit as not only is he just about surpassed his career high in goals, assists and points, but he is almost matching Markov's totals so far this year. The 9th round pick is proving a lot of people wrong this season. Last but not least, Mike Komisarek is proving to everyone that he is a dominant stay at home defenseman as he is amongst the leaders league wide in hits and shots blocked.
With all not being said, what do the Habs need to bring the team to that next level? I believe that the fans want some major changes to the team or to the front office. I doubt that will happen as long as the Habs are in a playoff position. Bob Gainey has already said that he is happy with the season, and I can't really blame him. From my calculations the Canadiens have about 20 more points then what was expected from them this season. So why would they worry? Without being able to string together some wins the Habs will go into the playoffs and loose. You need momentum to go anywhere in the Playoffs and the Canadiens have been unable to win more then 2 games in a row and are hard pressed to win just 2 in a row. There saving grace this season is the OT/SO lose point system where it doesn't show up in the standings as a loss. Go back to the pre-shootout era and the Habs would have 19 wins and 19 losses, a big difference from the 8 games above .500 they sit at today. So what do they need? A reality check, they need to loose 4 or 5 in a row so maybe the team will either be woken up and try to string together some winning streaks, or a big trade to shake up the roster.
Then again for a team of "4th liners" even at .500 you really can't complain!
As the second half of the season comes in, look for more roster shuffling as I doubt Gainey will be able to bring in any top tier talent at the deadline. If he can't do it for "free" doing it at a price would be that much harder. The Hamilton Bulldogs do have some talent the Habs can bring up, but there isn't really any diamonds in the rough (other then price) that they can call up that would change the outcome of the game. Halak is obviously expendable, but the question becomes does anyone want him? The same goes for Michael Ryder an UFA at seasons end. Halak's call up is most likely to give him some playing time to temp more teams into calling Gainey for the price tag then anything else. However, there isn't many teams looking for goalies this year, and there have been a handful of experienced goaltenders go through waivers with no takers and can be had for next to nothing through re-entry waivers.
If nothing is change in the front office of in the locker-room, expect the same thing as the rest of the season, a win a loss a win a loss, etc. A key injury to any of their scoring threats could send them into a tail spin unless Ryder picks up the pace. With an injury I would expect the Habs to tank like they did last season. Then again, if Gainey is smart enough to pull off any trade (Halak, Ryder to Tampa for anything, just a hint to you Gainey) to bring in a rental or some depth the Canadiens might be able to ride out the rest of the season and into the playoffs!