About last night …

I’ll cook Sunday dinner for anyone who thought Canadiens would sweep Buffalo and New Jersey this weekend.

And I’ll dine alone.

I’ll buy a round for everyne who thought the team would be leading the Eastern Conference on March 2.

And I’ll drink alone.

What the heck is happening here?

OK, before we scout choice spots for the parade, let’s take a nervous glance at the standings and note that the Boston Bruins – you thought our team was amazing? – are five points back with two games in hand.

And while Canadiens head west, Bruins play at Washington, host Florida, Toronto and the Caps, then play the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Canadiens visit Boston on the 20th and the Bruins are here on the 22nd.

So I hate to rain on anyone’s parade, but ….

Well, let’s just say there’s been a lot of precipitation in these parts. So before we precipitously decide the playoffs are a lock and the Cup a possibility, let’s take a few deep breaths, savour a great weekend and gear ourselves for a sleepy Tuesday morning at the office, because the San Jose game starts 10:30 Monday night.

Canadiens are atop the East for the first time since 1993. The team has won three in a row and seven of nine.

Here’s my one-word explanation: Youth.

Yes, Alex Kovalev is having a Hart Trophy season.

Yes, UFA acquisition Roman Hamrlik has been outstanding. 

Yes, Canadiens are getting great play from young veterans such as Andrei Markov, Tomas Plekanec, Mike Komisarek, Christopher Higgins (sometimes), Francis Bouillon (six blocked shots last night) and a not-so-young Mark Streit.

But the team would not be where it is if the development system hadn’t yielded a bumper crop of kids who – to the undoubted astonishment of this conservative, slow-and-steady-wins-the-race organization – are carrying the team down the stretch.

• It starts in goal. Since Cristobal Huet was traded, Carey Price is 3-0 with a 1.33 GAA and a save percentage of .956. I’m still not convinced we’re seeing the second coming of Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy. But Price, who’s had an up-and-down season, is heating up at just the right time. Stopping 31 of 32 shots to beat Martin Brodeur – very impressive. Price is not going 19-0 to finish the regular season. But he’s so calm, cool and confident that I don’t see the inevitable bad outing throwing this kid off kilter.

• The Brothers K. On the power play that produced Andrei’s winning goal, Sergei was having an awful time playing the right point. But after losing the puck and making some errant passes, he kept battling and started the sequence that led to his brother’s 20th. Andrei was expected to star in the NHL, and he has 40-goal potential. But how did Sergei last until the seventh round of the 2005 draft, when Canadiens got him with the 200th pick? Describing a player as a dog is pejorative in English. It connotes laziness, lack of dedication, underachievement. Exhibit A: Vladimir Malakhov. In French, suggesting a player has "du chien" is a compliment. It suggests toughness and tenacity. Montreal French media have attributed canine qualities to Sergei since he joied the team. With his parents at the Bell Centre last night, Sergei led the Canadiens with six hits, and Martin Lemay on CKAC said the kid was a rottweiler.

• And Maxim Lapiere is a pit bull. How great was that puck-holding shift that kept Martin Brodeur in his net for an extra 40 seconds? The Bell Centre went nuts as Max and Brian Smolinski worked the puck in the NJ end. It’s the kind of hockey Max and his teammates have to play for 60 minutes to win. And as Guy Carbonneau said, it was quite a contrast to Canadiens’ desperate – and often unsuccessful, see BONK, Radek – attempts to hold late-game leads earlier this season.

•  If he were three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier, my man Josh Gorges would be a NorrisTrophy candidate. I’ve loved this guy since training camp. Gorges has a skill set tailor-made for the new NHL: he’s a good skater, he makes sound decisions under pressure, he’s got excellent hockey sense, never takes a bad penalty and he snaps off a great first pass in transition. He takes a pounding from the power forwards but doesn’t back off. Gorges is Canadiens’ lowest-paid defenceman at $495,000 and will be an RFA. Sign him, Bob.

• Ryan O’Byrne’s minutes keep increasing – 11:26 last night – and he gets better in every game. O’B's size is an asset this time of the season, and the big galoot can skate.

• Unlike O’Byrne – and everyone else on this track team – Guillaume Latendresse is slower than the lineup outside Schwartz’s. But while I  agree with Pierre McGuire that he could have used some AHL seasoning, Gui! is here and has found a niche playing with Max.

• Unlike Latendresse, Mikhail Grabovski can flat-out fly. The latest member of Hell’s Bels is a more complete player than he was at the beginning of the season. When Grabovski begins clicking with Streit and Michael Ryder, look out.

In a salary cap league where you can’t throw money at your mistakes, scouting and player development are the keys to success.

Chapeau to Trevor Timmins and his staff.

And bravo to Bob Gainey, who has doggedly stuck to a team-building plan that is ahead of schedule.

 


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