Expectations are high this season in Montreal where the Canadiens are coming off one of their most successful regular seasons in recent memory.
While the club has started out at a sparkling 7-1-1 record in the first month of the National Hockey League season, there are grumblings amongst the fan base that the Habs have shown little of the flash and dash that made them one of the most exciting teams last season.
Is this a case of a team with exceedingly high expectations failing to gel with any consistency? Or are the Habs now viewed as one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference with the opposition raising their level of play accordingly.
What is evident is that teams around the league have taken the blue print Boston and Philadelphia adopted last spring to neutralize the once potent Habs powerplay.
Ten key games to watch this season
Wednesday, Nov. 26: Montreal at Detroit
The Habs have been trying to emulate the Wings organization in terms of player development and overall play. Last year, Detroit dominated Montreal in a 4-1 win, showing that the young Habs weren’t quite ready to compete with the elite of the Western Conference. What has Montreal learned in the past year that might indicate they are moving towards the elite teams of the NHL?
Friday, Nov. 28: Montreal at Washington
This game has the potential to be an offensive showcase of two of the most skilled teams in the Eastern Conference. Alexandre Ovechkin lit the Habs up for four goals in January 2008, resulting in the subsequent demotion of Carey Price to Hamilton of the AHL. Will the Habs burn former MVP and Vezina trophy winner Jose Theodore? It could be a battle of the Habs goalie of the future versus a ghost of Habs teams past.
Saturday, Nov. 29: Buffalo at Montreal
The Sabres have re-established themselves as one of the Eastern Conference contenders. A potentially great match up, but one that might favour the Sabres given Montreal will be coming off two games against elite calibre competition.
Thursday, Dec. 4: New York Rangers at Montreal
The first meeting of the teams in Montreal, since the Habs historic comeback. The Rangers under the guidance of Chris Drury and Scott Gomez and the stellar goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist are emerging as one of the Eastern Conference powers. Montreal hasn’t had a great deal of success versus the Rangers post-lockout.
Saturday, Dec. 6 New Jersey at Montreal
Martin Brodeur owns the Habs. Can Montreal prove that its success against Brodeur last season wasn’t a flash in the pan? A key test.
Saturday, Dec. 27: Montreal at Pittsburgh
Can the Habs depth overcome the Pens duo of Crosby and Malkin?
A swing through the North West Division wraps up the 10 key games.
Mon. Feb. 9, Montreal faces Calgary, followed by Wed., Feb. 11 in Edmonton, Fri, Feb. 13 in Denver versus the Avalanche and Sun., Feb. 15 in Vancouver against the Canucks.
Those four games coming in rapid succession in the month leading up to the trade deadline should give Bob Gainey and company an accurate read of the club’s potential heading towards the playoffs.