By Sean Garland, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

MONTREAL, QC. — There were more than a few snickers around the league about the Montreal Canadiens, at one point this season.

187798648_slideThe mayor publicly criticized the team’s top centre David Desharnais saying that he should be sent down to Hamilton. There were concerns surrounding Carey Price, whether or not he would still feel like a ‘hobbit in a hole.’  The 24CH television series put the players and coaches in a bigger spotlight and exposed some internal tensions, P.K Subban, for one.

The team struggled with consistency at points, enduring a four game losing streak in November and earning just three wins in a 10-game stretch in January  The defense was shaky, the offense sputtered. But then came the days leading up to the trade deadline and things changed. The Habs quietly began being considered as a long-shot contender for the Stanley Cup.

General manager Marc Bergevin made small adjustments, trading a surplus defensemen for Dale Weise, a forward with size and character. Many fans groaned and complained that the GM didn’t get enough in return. Then there was the acquisition of lesser known defenseman Mike Weaver from the Florida Panthers for a fifth round draft pick. The fans questioned this move as well, not knowing as Bergevin did, that Josh Gorges injury was more serious than was being revealed.

Finally, with the clock ticking down on deadline day, the Canadiens pulled off a huge surprise landing dangerous forward Thomas Vanek from the New York Islanders. The benefits of adding an offensive sniper weren’t immediately felt but Habs had signaled that they were moving from a playoff bubble team to one that intended to compete with the best in the league.

Entering the post-season, many pundits figured the Habs would be in tough against a young and speedy team from Tampa Bay coached by Jack Adams nominee Jon Cooper. But the Lightning were swept aside in dramatic fashion with the Habs coming together in impressive fashion unlike they had in a long time.

The infusion of Vanek to the Habs lineup has given the team a boost of confidence. Suddenly, the Canadiens, once accused of having multiple fourth lines, now have a balanced lineup with trios of forwards who can play a solid two-way game.

Team captain Brian Gionta moved down to the third line and with a rejuvenated Rene Bourque finally provided play-making center Lars Eller with a set of finishers. They have combined to be the most consistent trio in the playoffs with Eller co-leading Canadiens forwards in scoring. The second line features Tomas Plekanec having a gritty Brendan Gallagher and a speedy Michael Bournival as his wingers. The fourth line has even shown its own flashes of brilliance with newcomer Weise providing offense along with Daniel Briere and Brandon Prust.

The Habs finally have a balanced attack and can roll all four lines against any competition.

Defensively, Subban has shown signs of maturity taking his game to new heights. He along with Josh Gorges, have become a terrific shutdown pair. Not to mention, fellow countrymen Alexei Emelin and Andrei Markov have also been brilliant. Let’s not forget how much of an impact Weaver has been to the team, blocking shots and doing everything he can to help the team win.

All three late additions to this squad have all been extremely vital in moving to the Eastern Conference final. Vanek scoring key goals, Weaver playing sound defense and Weise playing the speedy and gritty two-way game we expect from “le club du hockey.”

A balanced attack, a solid defensive group and Price, the best goaltender in the world make the Montreal Canadiens a terrific choice to make it to the Stanley Cup final. Having brushed off the big bad Boston Bruins in dramatic fashion, the team is feeling extremely confident heading into the Eastern Conference final against a similar Cinderella story in the New York Rangers. The Habs are half way to winning the Stanley Cup.

(Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

The Habs are fast and furious, using their grit and hockey smarts to outplay and outskate their opponents. There’s a general sense among the critics that the Canadiens are not yet an elite NHL team. But among optimistic fans who have always considered their team a contender, there is now reason to believe that this is the year.  And it’s possible if the team can continue to perform the way they have been for their first eight wins of the post-season.

The Canadiens, historically, have been quite successful against the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist, who hasn’t fared well in the rabid confines of the Bell Centre with a 4-5-2 career record with a 3.87 goals against average and .876 save percentage.  But his last game in Montreal was January 15, 2012 and Lundqvist is the main reason the Rangers made it to the ECF.

But the Habs have their own MVP, and according to Sportsnet.ca, Price has moved into the number one position of the Conn Smythe power rankings. For that reason, combined with their playoff performance thus far, the Canadiens have to be considered as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

How far can this team go? That remains to be seen, but the general feeling from their faithful fans is that the Habs will go.