Hands up, everyone who thought your Montreal Canadiens would make the playoffs in Year 1 of the Marc Bergevin rebuild?
OK, I see we have a few liars in tonight’s audience. So let’s narrow this down a bit further:
Hands up everyone who thought the Canadiens would clinch a playoff berth with eight games left in their regular season?
Well, who thought the Canadiens would be winning in April with three rookies in the lineup?
Hmmm, I see we can’t award the gift certificate for a session with Patrick V. Hickey’s personal hair stylist just yet.
So here’s the big one that will eliminate all the faux experts and BS artists:
Who thought Peter Budaj would have more wins than Jaroslav Halak?
Is that crazy or what?
Look it up: Carey Price’s once and immediate-future backup won his seventh (in a row, BTW) Thursday night in Buffalo. Budaj is 7-1-1 on the season.
Halak is 6-5-1. Budaj has a better save percentage, .918-.899, and a slightly better goals-against average, 2.13 to 2.14, than his Slovakian homeboy.
It’s been that kind of season in Montreal. Everything is coming up roses … even though we’re getting crocus-killing snow on Friday.
To the utter and enduring astonishment of us non-liars, the team that finished a full-value last in the Eastern Conference has become one of the best in the NHL.
The Canadiens have lost nine games in regulation time this season. They’re the only single-digit L team in the East, and it ties them with Anaheim for second fewest in the league, behind Chicago’s five regulation losses.
The Canadiens have scored 127 goals. That’s tied with one-dimensional Tampa Bay for third in the NHL, behind Pittsburgh and the Hawks.
The Canadiens plus-32 goal differential is third in the league, behind the Penguins and Chicago. They have opened the scoring in 28 of their 40 games – a cool 70 per cent of 1-0 action.
Are they a lock for a 25th Stanley Cup?
No, but your Canadiens have a shot. And that’s more than anyone – fans, team executives, players – was expecting this season.
In his postgame press conference, Michel Therrien was asked to single out a factor in the Canadiens’ success.
His players, the coach said, “accept the team concept.”
We see the concept in the Canadiens’ system. They chase the puck like hungry wolves; and when the Canadiens seize the biscuit, they’re off and skating in a transition game Buffalo’s Steve Ott praised as “unbelievable” during his Hockey Night in Canada interview.
The Canadiens stick up for each other, as exemplified by Francis Bouillon going right after Ott for the Sabre’s heavy hit on Brendan Gallagher.
Esprit de corps is reinforced by the fact that everyone is contributing to the Canadiens’ success.
My man Arpon Basu wrote a very prescient pre-game piece for NHL.com in which he pointed to the Canadiens’ superbly balanced attack. Unlike last season, when the David Desharnais-Max Pacioretty-Erik Cole line carried the team (to nowhere, but I digress), the current Canadiens have three bona-fide scoring lines. This is rare in the NHL, and it presents opponents with a daunting task: How do you shut down nine dangerous forwards?
Buffalo couldn’t do it. The Canadiens got goals from each line.
The scorers were:
• Rene Bourque, who has bounced back from his concussion and been reunited with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta
• Alex Galchenyuk, who has bounced back from a 17-game scoring drought with three goals in his last four games … not to mention moves that embarrass defencemen and tape-to-tape passes that make you droll thinking about the kind of centre this 19-year-old phenom is going to be.
• Brendan Gallagher, who never stopped working while his linemates, DD and Pacioretty, struggled.
The other goals were scored, on the power play, by defencemen: Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban, who has more goals (11) and more points (34) than any other Dman in the league.
Again, I haven’t picked out my spot yet for the Cup parade. But if P.K. isn’t a Norris Trophy finalist, there ought to be a joint FBI-RCMP investigation.
And the coach definitely belongs in the Jack Adams Trophy discussion.
“It’s not easy to make the playoffs,” Therrien said. “Many good teams don’t.”
But when the postseason dance begins, every participant has a shot.
Would you want to be facing the Islanders or Washington in the first round? How about Minnesota, or the defending champion Kings?
There will be a playoff atmosphere at the Air Canada Centre Saturday night. And the home team will give a better account of itself than the woeful Sabres.
Outshot 42-15 in your own barn?
C’mon, man! That’s humiliating. Between this bunch and the NFL Bills, I pity Buffalo sports fans.
It’s nice to see an “x” beside Montreal in the standings. The Canadiens’ remaining eight games, however, will be more challenging.
The value of the game was Therrien’s luxury of rolling four lines and balancing ToI among his injury-wracked defence corps. Nathan Beaulieu played 16:50. He and Davis Drewiske (15:18) were plus-2.
And Andrei Markov played only 15:35 at even strength, a shade more than Bouillon, a shade less than Josh Gorges.
Oh, and the penalty killers pitched another shutout. That’s seven games without surrendering a power-play goal.
Hands up everyone who would have predicted that before Jeff Halpern joined the Canadiens?
• Let’s go to the highlight reel