The Montreal Canadiens season can be best resembled as the lifespan of a cat. The Canadiens entered the final week of the regular season with the worst power play in the league and somehow a chance at making the playoffs. Now following a loss to the Washington Capitals, they need a hope and a prayer to secure final wild-card spot in the East. Just like how a cat has nine lives and the ability to always land on its feet, the same could be said about this season’s Canadiens.
Time after time they seemed to have fallen off a ledge, only to constantly find a way to land right-side up. Now, with the season coming to an end, they are officially on their ninth and final life. After big wins against the Winnipeg Jets on the road and the Tampa Bay Lightning at home, a loss to the Capitals put the Canadiens in need of desperate help from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Most pundits, including this writer, did not predict Montreal vying for a playoff spot this season. The fact that the Canadiens are even in this position at this point in the season is a major accomplishment. However, while it would still be disappointing to the players, coaches and the fanbase if they were to not able to make the playoffs, what they have done to this point is remarkably impressive on its own. These are the three key reasons to the Habs success this season.
Bergevin the Trade Wizard
After a horrendous 2017-18, general manager Marc Bergevin had a lot of time in the offseason to really inspect his roster and make some tough decisions. The primary victims were Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk. Galchenyuk’s deal came first, and his replacement has arguably been the biggest impact on the team. Max Domi was the only return in the deal, and when the trade was reported, there was a lot of people shaking their heads.
People wondered how a player who had never scored 20 goals, and primarily played on the wing, would fit in to the high-pressure market of Montreal, and shift to playing down the middle. Not only has the 24- year-old from Winnipeg blown away all expectations, but he has become a vocal leader in the dressing room. He has played at centre in every game for the Canadiens this season, and has amassed career highs in goal, assists and points.
The other trade saw former captain Pacioretty getting dealt to the Vegas Golden Knights, and that has also proved to be a very prosperous deal. In return for the five-time 30-goal scorer, they got forward Tomas Tatar and prospect Nick Suzuki. Suzuki was the prime asset in the trade and he has had as a strong season with both the Owen Sound Attack and Guelph Storm, where he has accumulated 94 points. However, it is Tatar who is having a considerable impact with the Canadiens.He has flourished in Montreal under Claude Julien and relishes playing for the bleu, blanc et rouge.
Tatar has reached his personal best in goals with 25, and has hit career highs in assists and points. What is even more remarkable about both Domi and Tatar is that they have a combined plus/minus of plus-43. Domi is a plus-20 while Tatar is a plus-23, which is unheard of in a player in his first season with a new team. These trades, alongside the strong play from the role players, has given Montreal a fighting chance at reaching the postseason.
The Coaching Staff
One of the things the Canadiens knew right away in the offseason was that they were going to emphasize youth on the team. In what was supposed to be a learning season with one of the youngest rosters in the league, the Canadiens have shown that experience is not a defining factor. Credit goes to management who went out and acquired coaches who have had success with young players in the past.
They brought in Luke Richardson, who was the head coach of the Binghamton Senators, and Dominque Ducharme, who coached for the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for seven years. Players are coming off the ice and Ducharme and Richardson are pulling out the coaching board, and along with associate coach Kirk Muller, are doing more teaching in between each shift to help guide the players. This had led to such a great attention to detail which has become one of the key focal points for this team.
“There’s nothing like experience, right?” Julien said. “And these guys here are gaining experience. Through these kind of games and also seeing what kind of a fan base you have here — this was like a playoff game. We’ll see by the end of the week.”
That is a direct quote from a head coach who has seen the ups and down this season has provided, and is still extremely appreciative of his teams fighting effort. Last season, there were plenty of games where the team lacked effort, energy and at times looked out of sorts on the ice. This season has been the complete opposite. Julien has the Canadiens among the top teams in 5-on-5 hockey, and while they struggle on special teams, their overall effort and energy in each game is a major improvement from last season.
The Return of Carey Price
After a tough last few years that saw the injury bug bite him hard, Carey Price returned in 2019 with something to prove. He vowed to be better this season, and boy was he ever. Price has played in 30 of the team’s last 31 games, and his 66 games played are the second-highest of his career. You can definitely make the argument that the Canadiens would not even be in the position they are in had it not been for the British Columbia native’s sensational play. In fact, on some nights when the Canadiens just could not find a way to score, it was the 31-year-old goaltender who kept him in contention.
His strong play did not go unnoticed. In a survey of more than 500 NHL players, Price was voted best goalie by 29.9 per cent, finishing well ahead of the Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne (17.3 per cent) and Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy (17.1 per cent). Perhaps the biggest achievement of the season was when he surpassed Jacque Plante for most wins by a goalie in franchise history. It had been over 50 years since Plante hung up the skates and retired in 1963 with 314 wins.
“I feel like most people who have donned this jersey laid it all out there,” said Price, reflecting on the Canadiens greats of the past. “I’m proud to be part of this.”
This season might not have the same type of numbers he had when he won 38 games as a 23-year-old. Nor is it as good as the infamous 2014-15 campaign in which he won 44 games with 1.96 goals-against average, which conclusively led to him winning the Hart, Vezina, Jennings, and Pearson Trophies. Nonetheless Price has been the best player on the team this season, and the key reason to their playoff push.
Even if they win their last game, there is a very good chance that the Canadiens find themselves out of the playoffs following their season finale against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They may even finish with 96 points, which would be the most points ever by a team to not qualify for the playoffs. However you slice it, once the dust settles on the season, the Canadiens players and management can look back at what they accomplished this season and certainly deserve an A+ for this magical ride.