State of the Habs is a new 12-part feature series where I’ll break down the Habs season into 4-game chunks and look at players who are under- or over-performing during that time, while commenting on issues surrounding the team.
Overview – 4 Game Segment 1/12
|Season||Last Four Games|
|Leading Scorer||Markov (4-1-5)||Markov (4-1-5)|
|Hot (L4 GP)||Diaz (0-5-5)|
|Cold (L4 GP)||Cole (0-1-1)|
TORONTO, ON – You’d be forgiven if – after the Montreal Canadiens home opener loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs – you thought to yourself, “I waited an extra three and a half months for THIS?!”
Fortunately, fans didn’t have to wait long to have their loyalty repaid, as those who didn’t cry that the sky was falling following that listless initial outing were repaid with a 3-game win streak to round out the first twelfth of this abbreviated NHL season, a run the length of which the Habs matched only twice last year, winning four straight October 26th to November 4th, and again February 5th to 11th.
If the first two victories came against a tired Florida Panthers squad (who had played the night before) and a slumping Washington Capitals, Sunday’s win over the defending Stanley Cup finalists and till-then-undefeated New Jersey Devils was a real test, and one to which the team held up well. Sure, they blew 2-0 and 3-1 leads, but they were combative the whole night and didn’t despair when Martin Brodeur’s troops evened the score in the third, eventually prevailing in overtime.
One key to Montreal’s early season success has been the play of its new fourth line, composed of Travis Moen, Ryan White, and Colby Armstrong. The unit has provided multiple momentum-swinging physical cycling shifts, and this despite a slow/difficult start to the season for Moen, and moments of indiscipline from White. Having a fourth line of three bangers with a clearly defined role has made a huge difference on the entire roster compared to hosting a gang of misfits, serving as the only place the team could find to dress the likes of Aaron Palushaj on some nights last season.
Much has been said about the team’s third line, which has had many nicknames thrown around via social media: “Gally-Oops,” “Gallys and the Sitter,” “In Gallys We Prust,” “PG18.” Whatever you want to call them, the compete level and chemistry between Brandon Prust and rookies Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk forced the Canadiens’ hand, leading to yesterday’s announcement that the latter two would remain with the big club for the remainder of the season. Even those who believed Galchenyuk was best off returning to Sarnia following a five-game trial with the Habs have to admit that he has earned his place in the line-up and there was no choice but to retain him and allow his game to continue growing at the NHL level under Michel Therrien.
Speaking of Therrien, he’s another “new” addition that has performed beyond how many thought he would. His hiring was met with mixed reactions from fans wary of his previous tenure behind the Canadiens bench, or who saw his lack of a Stanley Cup championship with the Pittsburgh Penguins as a failure. But if the first four games this year are any indication, he has a team buying into a system and concept, playing a true aggressive forecheck for the first time in years, and standing up for one another on a nightly basis. Top marks for the retread up till now.
Even with all these new faces making splashes, the biggest “additions” haven’t been moves made by Marc Bergevin at all. We can start with Rene Bourque, a Pierre Gauthier trade acquisition who was a fish out of water after landing in Montreal last season. This year has brought with it a healthy new Bourque – or perhaps an old Bourque going back to his seasons as a productive scorer – even if he has yet to pot his first of the season. He is skating hard and charging the net, something he was hesitant to do last year, and so long as he continues in that vein, the goals will come.
Next consider the captain, Brian Gionta. At 34-years young, with a points-per-game average in decline over the past three seasons, and having missed 51 regular season contests in 2011-12, many thought the little man with a huge heart to be done.
I had may own doubts, thinking he may be destined to play out his career as a hard-working third line character vet type. In that, an anecdotal lesson to listen to those who know the game best. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to have a brief hockey chat with Detroit Red Wings G.M. Ken Holland back in June. We touched on the outlook of the Montreal Canadiens for 2012-13. There were reasons to be hopeful, he assured me. Was he referring to the youth movement and emergence of the likes of Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban? No. Was it the upcoming top draft pick who would play savior? Nope. The very first thing Holland called out as having the ability to turn the tide on a disastrous season was the return of one Brian Gionta. I brushed it off as an attempt to provide hope to a discouraged Habs beat reporter at the time, but turns out there’s a reason he’s considered one of the greatest hockey minds of the last two decades. He may have been a month off in assessing a return-to-action for the NHL for December, but he was spot on that Gionta had plenty left in the tanks. Where there seemed to be a lack of chemistry with Tomas Plekanec last season, Gionta has a fire in his eye to make up for it and is already on the board with two goals and a helper.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the team’s first star of the past week, the general on the blueline, Andrei Markov. Another player who many deemed “finished” because of the difficulties he displayed even when re-inserted to the line-up late last season, glass knee Markov is looking like the fan favourite he was back in 2009-10 and prior. Already with four goals and an assist, Markov’s hockey sense and accurate slapper have re-invigorated a powerplay that was one of the many poor aspects of last season’s team’s game. Leading the club with an average ice time above 25 minutes per game, he is also serving as a valuable mentor for partner Alexei Emelin, who sits second on the team playing 22:05 a night. We’ve seen the kind of difference Markov can have on a team in the past, and – while it’s still very early, even in such a shortened season – his return to form is as valid a reason as any to believe a post-season qualification isn’t out of reach.
In a year where little went right, the biggest positive Hab fans could hang their hats on in 2011-12 was the emergence of a “true” top line in Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, and Erik Cole. No one should have realistically expected Cole to match (even pro-rated) last season’s career high 35-goal outburst, but with each of the linemates reaching the 60-point plateau, one should have been able to count on a better start to the season than we’ve seen.
Cole has been a slow starter throughout his career, so his struggles to date can’t be considered entirely unexpected. Last season, his process of winning the crowd over (as they were starting to get impatient) only began in the season’s 8th game, when he scored his first goal of the season against the Florida Panthers. He never looked back from there, becoming the veteran power forward presence the team hadn’t seen in years. There is hope of progress in his case, then, as he looked much more like his old self against the New Jersey Devils on Sunday, taking the puck to the net in last-season fashion on multiple occasions, including drawing a penalty in overtime that would lead to Markov’s game-winner.
Pacioretty’s game was also floundering before suddenly falling ill with appendicitis and requiring emergency surgery. When he does return in a minimum of three-to-four weeks (and he has always shown to be a quick healer), his skating and effort levels will need to ratchet up a notch, as the season will be more than a third complete and though he had registered four assists in his three games, he was largely unnoticeable.
The biggest disappointment of the group, however, has been last season’s most productive pivot, Desharnais, who has been visibly fighting the puck since the opener. With just two shots on goal through four games (both coming in the romp over the Florida Panthers), Desharnais has done little to create offensive zone chances, and his small stature leaves him frequently outmuscled in the defensive end. Though a late bloomer, at 26, Desharnais should now be in his prime, and if he doesn’t find his game quickly, he’ll be bumped down the depth charts in favour of a rising star like Galchenyuk or even to experiment with the also thus far ineffective Lars Eller.
The play of Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin has secured their spots in Montreal’s top six on the blueline, but the redemption season some hoped for Tomas Kaberle appears to have been a pipe dream. He once again looked much like the player who had deservedly begun hearing boo birds at the Bell Centre last season, and if Therrien is true to his word about doling out ice time based on merit, it should be he who sits now that P.K. Subban is under contract despite his veteran status.
The Road Ahead
As good of a start as the Canadiens have had, the battle has just begun. The team has benefited from a calm start to what will at times be a frantic-paced condensed 48-game calendar, and though the loss of Pacioretty will hurt, the return of Subban should help compensate for some of the missing offense. Adding him to the line-up may also give the team one of the best back-ends they’ve had in a while, as all should be pleased with the group when healthy (knock on wood):
Markov – Emelin
Gorges – Subban
Bouillon – Diaz
The team’s last line of defense – Carey Price – has been good, looking more comfortable with every passing game, but perhaps the best news is that he hasn’t really been forced to be “great” in any of the team’s three victories. Though he did earn first star honours against the Washington Capitals – the only one of the three wins in which the team was outshot – he has gotten far more support already than he saw at any point last season, reflected in his stellar 1.73 GAA and .936 save percentage (both ranking 5th in the league). While Markov, Gionta, and the rest will have a say as to team’s fate this season, when April rolls around, whether the Canadiens find themselves above or below the 8th spot playoff cut-off will ultimately be most dependent on the kind of season Price has.
A final tendency to be wary of involves the team’s two rookies, Galchenyuk and Gallagher. They have brought welcome energy to the line-up with their smiley demeanours, net presences, and exemplary work ethics, but it is common for young players to skate with this sort of strut in their step when making their debuts. The true test comes a dozen or so games into their NHL careers to see how much of that initial performance was based on adrenaline and excitement, and how much will be sustainable for the duration of the campaign.
A good start is just that: a start. The coming week will be a test of a different sort for the group, with a pair of back-to-backs on Tuesday and Wednesday and then Saturday and Sunday, and should provide plenty of fuel for fodder for the second installment of State of the Habs in a week’s time.
Three Stars – First Twelfth
1. Andrei Markov
2. Brian Gionta
3. Raphael Diaz