With the season nearing the halfway point, the cream of the NHL has started to rise to the top presenting us with a group of clear favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup this year. Some of the odds on favorites aren’t much of a surprise, the Blackhawks, Penguins, Canucks and Bruins were all listed in the top-8 at the start of the season. Thanks to their play and the stars in their lineups, those teams make up the current top-4 according to Bovada. The big surprise at this point in the season has to be the Montreal Canadiens, a team that has been steadily marching higher and higher up the list of Cup favorites.
At the end of last summer the odds against the Canadiens were as much as 40 to 1, and although they had improved to 30 to 1 underdogs by the season kickoff in January, they still weren’t taken too seriously by the oddsmakers. That’s starting to change, Bovada currently has the Canadiens at 15 to 1 to win the Cup, slightly ahead of last year’s Champs, the L. A. Kings. While the Canadiens are as low as 9 to 1 to take home the Cup, but not everyone is convinced, the chart below shows a few sites have the Habs pegged at 20 to 1 and Sky Bet has them as high as 22 to 1 underdogs. On average the Habs are seen as a top-8 team, but if their solid play continues, expect to see them climb even closer to the head of the pack.
Canadiens Passed their Biggest Test Yet
The Canadiens are riding a streak of 11 games without losing in regulation. Looking at their schedule, it would have been safe to assume that the streak was not going to survive last weekend. The Habs took on the Atlantic division leading Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday and followed that up with a visit to Boston to face the team with the best winning percentage in the East.
It would have been safe to assume as well, that about midway through both games, around the time when the Habs were trailing 4-2 to the Pens or 3-2 to the Bruins, that their improbable streak would be coming to an end. But that wasn’t the case.
The Canadiens battled back against Pittsburgh on Saturday, matching the Penguins goal for goal right up until overtime in what was among the most entertaining games so far this season, a game the Pens eventually won 7-6.
The Canadiens also battled back against the Bruins, or battled through the Bruins might be more accurate. Even with the addition of Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong to give the Habs that element of grit they’ve been missing the past few years. The Bruins are still a much bigger, tougher team than the Habs, and they did their best to take advantage of that on Sunday. The Bruins outhit the Habs 15-8 in the opening frame, and although the night finished with the Bruins only landing 30 checks to Montreal’s 24, Zdeno Chara was kept off the ice for 17 minutes for going after Alexei Emelin late in the second period. Chara still finished with a team high, 5 hits.
David Desharnais Nets the Game Winner Against the Bruins
The Habs managed to use Boston’s aggression to their advantage, fighting size with skill. Montreal’s smallest player, 5’7” 180 lb David Desharnais, popped in a pair including the game winner to give the Canadiens the victory and sole share of the Eastern Conference lead.
Do the Habs Really Have What it Takes?
The question still remains, are the Habs actually Cup contenders? Do they deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the Boston Bruins, the Pittsburgh Penguins or the seemingly unstoppable Chicago Blackhawks? To answer those questions, think about what it takes to become champions of this league.
If the L. A. Kings taught us anything last season, the first thing you need to do to win a Cup is make the playoffs. The Kings finished eighth in the West last year but managed to knock off three division winners on their road to a Stanley Cup. With just over half a season left to play the Habs have a sizable cushion on the ninth place Rangers. It’s not a sure thing, but it looks like you can check off making the playoffs.
Another thing the Kings, and the Boston Bruins before them, needed to become champs was a solid goaltender. In fact, even the runner ups for the last two Cups relied heavily on their goalies.
Jonathan Quick and Tim Thomas were the last two Conn Smythe winners. Carey Price has had a couple of off nights this season but is still one of the league’s best. So while he’s given up 38 goals in 17 games this year, he’s given up only 25 goals in his 15 best starts. That good enough for the Habs to put a big check mark next to the type of goaltending they would need to challenge for hockey’s ultimate prize.
Something that almost all Cup winners from the past decade have had in common is a balanced lineup with multiple scoring threats. Last year the Kings had 9 players score game winning goals in their 16 playoff victories, the Bruins had a dozen player with 10 or more points on their way to a Cup in 2011, the Blackhawks had plenty of star power in 2010, but were able to back up superstars like Kane, Toews and Hossa with solid players like Dave Bolland, Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg.
The Canadiens have generated scoring up and down their lineup this season. Recently the duo of Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais have come up big, earlier in the season the line of Plekanec, Bourque and Gionta were clicking, and youngsters Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher and Lars Eller have all looked dangerous this season. If balanced scoring is a key Cup factor, the Habs look just fine in that category.
The last puzzle piece that almost every Stanley Cup team needs to have in place is the right coach. Darryl Sutter only had half a season last year to turn around an underperforming team. Not only did he get the Kings into the playoffs, once they got there we all know what happened next. Joel Quenneville, a safe bet to be in the running for the Jack Adams award this season, was as big a part of the Hawks win in 2010 as any of his star players, and the same can be said for Dan Bylsma in ’09 and Mike Babcock in ’08.
The question remains as to whether Michel Therrien is the coach that can bring the Habs all the way. He took the Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008, but they only managed to win the Cup once he was replaced the next season. Whether or not Therrien is the right man remains to be seen, but he is certainly playing the part at the moment.
Therrien has a Habs team that was in complete disarray just a season ago marching in lockstep this year, and he knows what a long playoff run feels like, an experience that could come in handy this May.
Rob has been blogging about the Habs since 2011 at MontrealHockeyTalk.com and can usually be heard before every Canadiens games on the MHT Pregame Show.