Puck Drop: Is it too early to say the Habs are killing it?

Reasons to be optimistic after last year’s collapse.


Canadiens vs. Coyotes

This was an important week for the Habs, who are in the midst of playing four games in a six-day period. The most important match-up came last night, when they played the Tampa Bay Lightning, who lost in the Stanley Cup finals last season and should battle the Canadiens for first place in the Atlantic Division throughout the entire season. This busy week will culminate on Saturday night with a match-up vs. the rival Toronto Maple Leafs, who have pretty much said “fuck it” for the season and gone full rebuild. (The expectation in Toronto is that the team will delay immediate gratification in favour of allowing younger players to gain experience. This strategy seems to be working as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander have looked promising for them so far.)

Here’s a summary of the Habs’ past week, in 140 characters or less:

Coyotes (W) – Carey’s first game of the season was a win.

Bruins (W) – I told you that Paul Byron can skate fast.

Flyers (W) – Snooze fest for first two periods escalated quickly into a full-on Alex Radulov love affair in the third period.

Islanders (W) – The quality of the ice is terrible at the Barclays Center. Canadiens dominated for most of the game and won despite the best efforts from opposing goalie Thomas Greiss

Lightning – (W) – Timely goals in the third period by Galchenyuk and Pacioretty sealed the win for Montreal.

The Montreal Canadiens’ season is off to great start. They have yet to lose a single game in regulation time. In fact, the only real opportunity they missed for additional points came in the shootout loss vs. Ottawa, when David Desharnais fanned on his breakaway attempt to end the game. They also currently hold the best record in the entire NHL, allowing in the least amount goals while also scoring at an alarming and unsustainable rate. Most importantly, after contracting the flu last week, Price has been back at in the crease doing what he does best: stopping pucks and winning games.

This sounds all too familiar, as the Canadiens find themselves in a very similar situation to where they were last October, when a solid start had everyone assuming that the playoffs were all but a certainty. An eventual collapse followed and any hopes of a successful season were dashed. As we’re only approximately 1/10th of the way through this season, one can’t help but feel a little uneasy about how great things are looking for the team, particularly given how things went south in 2015/2016. So should we be worried about something similar happening this year?

Michel Therrien is smiling again. Marc Bergevin has started to shave again. Pacioretty is playing with Desharnais again. Everything is back to normal. Most importantly the Canadiens are winning games. And while there are no certainties about the way this season will unfold, there are a number of reasons to believe that another downward spiral is unlikely.

Shea Weber World Cup toy
Shea Weber World Cup toy

It all starts with the presence of Shea Weber, who has made quite the impression early in his Habs tenure. Playing approximately 25 minutes a game, he is trusted by Therrien to play during the most critical points of the game, and at both ends of the ice. His booming shot, which has been recorded at 108.5 MPH, is second only to notorious Habs villain Zdeno Chara (by a few milliseconds). Many were critical of the circumstances of Weber’s arrival in Montreal, but no one questioned whether there would be any immediate dividends with his play. Weber currently leads the NHL in plus minus rating and has elevated the play of his defensive partners Nathan Beaulieu and Alexei Emelin around him. His leadership quality is one of the many reasons why he was acquired in the first place and things have gone as expected.

Furthermore, should this high level of play continue, it’s not unreasonable to assume that Weber will be in consideration for the Norris Trophy (Best Defensemen Award) at the end of season. His presence seems to have stabilized the back end and he does possess experience playing in high pressure situations after leading Canada to a World Cup trophy last month. He also seems to be buddies with Price, who was his teammate for this tournament a month ago and was the first person to call him after the trade was completed in June. This relationship might ultimately play a role in ensuring that the “be all end all” of Habs fans decides to stay in Montreal when his contract ends at the end of next season.

In an interview over the summer, Price also openly admitted that Weber’s style of play is better suited to the strategy being deployed, and keeping him happy is obviously the #1 priority for management. Fans — who can be guilty of jumping on and off the bandwagon during periods of turmoil — will only be happy to oblige. Another understated fact is that the Canadiens have been scoring timely goals, sealing victories late in the game against Boston, Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Tampa Bay in this past week alone. A number of these critical plays have been abetted by Weber and can be attributed to his leadership ability, while by the same token elevating the play of his teammates.This need for timely goal-scoring was very evident last season as Pacioretty struggled in his first turm as captain, and this problem appears to be remedied, at least in the short-term, as different players have risen to the occasion at different moments.

Among management’s key selling points for bringing Weber into the fold was his leadership, and complementing returning players from last year’s roster with players like Andrew Shaw and Alex Radulov has also reinforced this notion. Adding players with extensive experience in the playoffs or in international competition will make a repeat of last year’s disaster less likely. In many ways, the transition towards a new core of leaders to replace experienced veterans from previous successful seasons — like Brian Gionta, Daniel Brière and Brandon Prust — has finally happened. While it can be argued that these ex-Habs had lost a step by the time they were dispatched elsewhere, they were sorely missed when things fell off a cliff during the great collapse, and Pacioretty was thrust into an unfamiliar situation that he could not shoulder alone.

While there will be forks in the road — the Habs will not be expected to finish the season with zero losses in the remaining 74 games — there is no reason to expect history to repeat itself. Perhaps the way the team’s leaders will respond to the first rough patch or losing streak this season will be the most telling sign of whether Bergevin’s bold changes will be worthwhile. And while Habs fans might err on the side of caution this time around, they should feel safe enough to assume that the team will be competing in for the Cup when April comes around. ■