The Canadiens are off to a 6-2-0 start, their best since 2008-2009 when they went 8-2-0 in their first 10 games. The team looks like an early lock to crack the playoffs and might even be able to go deep, but can a team that finished dead last in the East really turn itself around this quickly or is their quick start just a fluke?
Andrei “The General” Markov Leading the Charge
After missing most of the last two seasons with knee injuries, Andrei Markov is back and at the top of his game this season. Montreal’s power play is humming along with 11 goals in 46 opportunities thanks in large part to the veteran defenseman who has all of his team leading 8 points on the power play.
There’s no point playing “what if” when it comes to Markov’s injuries and the Habs’ terrible performance last season, but there’s little doubt that a healthy Andrei Markov has been the biggest improvement to the team this year.
The General stabilized a power play that was ranked 28th in the league last year and has picked up 3 game winning goals in the process. With 4 goals and 4 assists, Markov has already beaten his point totals for the last two seasons combined, all 20 games worth.
Just having Markov in the lineup this season makes the Habs a much better team than they were last year, but he isn’t the only reason the Habs are looking better.
The Kids are Alright
Other improvements from last season include the Habs’ entire third line. Last year the Canadiens did not have any defined line combinations aside from the top trio of David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole. This season they have been getting contributions throughout the lineup and the third line, consisting of rookies Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, and the rugged Brandon Prust, have been doing their part.
Galchenyuk, Montreal’s first round draft pick last summer and third pick overall, was expected play a big role in the future of this team. Well the future is looking pretty bright. He has 1 goal and 6 assists in 8 games this season and, with a +5 rating, is second on the team in plus/minus. The team’s plus/minus leader you ask? None other than fellow rookie and Galchenyuk’s linemate, Brendan Gallagher, at +6.
Gallagher and Galchenyuk were expected by many to play 5 NHL games and return to their minor league teams. 8 games into the season, the youngsters look like natural fits in the NHL, and coach Michel Therrien has done a terrific job managing minutes and expectations for the two youngsters.
And speaking of Therrien…
A Tale of Three Coaches
Michel Therrien has brought some much needed stability to a Canadiens team that was anything but stable last season. Under Jacques Martin and Randy Cunneyworth last year the Habs had trouble staying in a winning groove. As a result, their most consistent Centerman for the last few seasons, Tomas Plekanec, did not have a stable set of wingers all season.
But the instability wasn’t entirely caused by Montreal’s coaching staff last season. The Canadiens had a slew of injuries to deal with and when things started going bad, then GM Pierre Gauthier was quick to pull the trigger on a few strange trades.
Now, with Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien firmly at the helm, Montreal has not only been able to find a pretty consistent lineup to start the season, they also have the depth available to keep the players on the ice honest.
PK Subban signed his contract last week giving the Habs 8 viable defensemen and 13 options at forward with a fourteenth, Petteri Nokelainen, recovering from injury. What’s more, unlike last season players are being held accountable for their play on ice. While last season players were shuffled into and out of the lineup seemingly without rhyme or reason, this year players are given clear signals as to why they are being left out of the lineup or on the bench in key situations and what they can do to correct the situation.
The result has been a Habs roster with every player on the same page and knowing how they fit into the equation.
Biggest Test is Yet to Come
If the Canadiens aren’t Stanley Cup contenders at the moment, they probably aren’t that far away. They have won 5 out of 6 at the Bell Centre, a building they only managed to win 16 of 41 games last year. 8 games into the season the Habs are just one point back of the Boston Bruins for top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Wednesday the Canadiens will get the chance to do battle against the Bruins for a crack at top spot and an all-important chance to find out where they stack against one of the elite teams in the East.
But the Habs have yet to go on an extended road trip, and while home wins are important, they’ll need to be able to win on the road if they want to be a top contender. The team splits time at home and on the road for the rest of February before playing a total of 9 road games in March, including 6 out of 7 away games in a two week span.
How the Canadiens fare on that trip will help answer the question of just how far has this team come since last season.