It seems so long ago now, but there was a time at the start of this 2020-21 season that the Montreal Canadiens were the talk of the North Division. Most of that talk was positive too, even from (some) people in Toronto following a dominant 5-1-2 January.
Since then, the Habs have been largely inconsistent during an overall topsy-turvy first half, with “inconsistent” being a polite way of saying “not nearly as good.” A Canadiens playoff appearance never really came into doubt, but their ability to compete once they got to the postseason certainly did.
Thankfully, all of a sudden the Canadiens have regained their mojo. With the Canadiens’ schedule being extremely condensed due to having had games rescheduled because of the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol, there will most certainly be bumps along the way. So, complete dominance is almost certainly out the window. Here are three signs the worst is over, though:
3. The Win Streak
Granted, it’s a stretch that sandwiches the unscheduled one-week hiatus, but the Canadiens are suddenly 4-0-2 over their last six games, which is very much in line with how they fared to start the season. More to the point, since returning, the Canadiens have won two straight for the first time under interim head coach Dominique Ducharme.
Overall, the team has won three straight, which is the first time that’s happened since they shot out of the season’s starting gates. In all actuality, the Canadiens have a chance to win their fourth consecutive game for the first time this Saturday night, when they face the last-place Ottawa Senators.
2. Increased Depth Scoring
At the risk of jinxing a potential victory, it would be their second straight over the Sens (technically third, dating back to early March), with the Habs having won in relatively dominant fashion 4-1 on April Fool’s Day. No joke. In the game, the lower half of the Habs lineup accounted for two goals, with Jake Evans leading the way with two key assists.
It was the second consecutive game in which Habs depth scorers contributed significantly to a victory, with Artturi Lehkonen tallying a goal and an assist against the Edmonton Oilers in the Habs’ 4-0 win immediately beforehand. Paul Byron meanwhile notched two primary assists himself, including on the game-opening marker by Jesperi Kotkaniemi just 18 seconds into the contest to set the tone.
The depth scoring had actually been a hallmark of the Canadiens during their early-season success. To illustrate, Evans has two goals on the season, both coming in the season’s first five games. While he hasn’t scored since, the first multi-point game of his young career against the Senators at least showed he is contributing offensively, coincidentally (or not) following the acquisition of Eric Staal, who could conceivably fill the former’s fourth-line center role once he’s out of quarantine.
1. Byron’s Shorthanded Goal
The reason behind Evans breaking out of his slump doesn’t matter. It simply suffices that he did. After all, for the Canadiens to keep it going, they’re going to need to rely on their role players the rest of the season in order to keep everyone’s legs as fresh as possible. That means on both sides of the puck, including on the penalty kill, which was front and center on Evans’ first assist of the night, to Byron for a beautiful shorthanded goal (~4:00 mark below).
It may not seem like much, but it was actually the Canadiens’ eighth shorthanded goal this season to lead the league. More significantly, in the context of this list, it was the Canadiens’ first since a Feb. 4 3-2 loss to the Sens, which coincided with the start of the Canadiens’ slump, during which they went 2-5-3.
Admittedly, the Canadiens’ penalty kill still sucks, ranked 23rd in the league (76.6%). However, what has improved on that front is their discipline. In each of their last five games, the Habs have earned as many or more power-play opportunities than they’ve given up to opponents (14 to 10 overall). As a result, the Canadiens have made inroads towards improving their penalty differential, which had at one time been the worst in the league (27th entering action Saturday).
Considering the Canadiens’ discipline had been an issue dating back to the season’s early stages, in some respects they’re even better off now. For instance, the Canadiens now also have a winning record at the Bell Centre. They’ve even managed to earn an extra point in a shootout to get the monkey off their collective back in that regard. Carey Price even earned a shutout, the Habs’ first of the season.
The Canadiens would have been on track for a second consecutive shutout playing in front of Jake Allen were it not for a late power-play opportunity and goal by the Senators in their last meeting. Even without the shutout, the Canadiens indisputably dominated the Senators in that game, which is something they had failed to do up to now, even versus a last-place team against which the Habs are 3-1-2 this season. Further proof the Canadiens have turned a corner.
The Canadiens do have 23 games left to play in just 39 days. So, it stands to reason they won’t be able to run roughshod through the division the rest of the way. However, it’s a start. Another start, anyway. Considering how well the first one went, the Canadiens should welcome it with open arms, hopefully having learned from their past mistakes in the process en route to a strong end to the season.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.