So how do you like your team at the quarter-pole?
Pretty darned good, eh?
Better than we expected?
As the young people say, for shizzy.
After 20 games last season, the Canadiens were 9-11. In Game 20, a 2-0 loss to Nashville, they gave up 55 shots on goal.
They are 13-6-1, good for third overall in the Eastern Conference and the league. In Game 20, they outshot the Leafs 38-30.
The Leafs aren’t very good, and we’ll have a better idea of where the Canadiens are at when they face the Flyers in the unfriendly confines of whatever they call the barn in Philadelphia. (Isn’t Wachovia bankrupt … just like the style of hockey that team plays?)
But as we wait to see if the Alouettes can make this a total Screw TO weekend, let’s feel good about a team that has:
• great goaltending
• a ridiculously good penalty-kill
• Four solid, experienced defenceman plus a spectacular rookie and a retread who’s found a home
• a much-improved supporting cast; and,last but not least
• a coach who is pushing all the right buttons.
Jacques Martin will never be mistaken for Pat Burns.
Fiery he is not.
Colourful he never will be.
But this guy has coached more than 1,300 regular-season and playoff games in the world’s best hockey league.
Martin is smart. And the demeanour of his team suggests he’s good at understanding and extracting the best from modern hockey players.
The coach never uses the media to rip his players. He gives respect and he gets it.
A notoriously D-first coach, Martin has installed a system that has the Canadiens holding opponents to 30 shots or fewer 10 times in the first 20 games. Another four times it’s been 31 SA. Only Tampa Bay and Nashville have topped 40.
The system has accomplished two vitally important goals:
• It has protected Carey Price and allowed the goaltender to build his confidence through 19 starts
• It has allowed the D corps to survive without its most talented member for all but seven games this season.
Martin has also been deft in his deployment of Bargain of the Year Jeff Halpern (39-14 on short-handed faceoffs).
It’s said Martin can’t handle young players.
But the coach has brought Lars Eller along slowly with no pressure. The kid was better than most of his teammates against Nashville, and Eller’s line had another good outing against the Leafs. P.K. Subban has been reined in enough to cut down on dangerous flamboyant errors without stifling the creativity of a very special young player.
The revival of Benoit Pouliot’s career is not complete. But Benny is doing his job: three thunderous hits against the Leafs last night, complementing Max Lapierre’s five on the rejigged Halpern line.
Perhaps the best thing Martin has done, through one and a quarter seasons behind the Canadiens’ bench, is identify the team’s most complete and valuable player. You just know the coach had a lot of input into the decision to sign Tomas Plekanec long-term for reasonable money.
The team still has issues.
Scott Gomez is mired in the mother of all slumps. As my friend Arpon Basu pointed out in the pressbox last night, if the team weren’t winning, the Bell Centre boo birds would be on Gomez like flies on Mike Komisarek.
(Poor Komo: $4.5 million for this season and three more. C’mon, man!)
The D is not deep. An injury to any of the Top Four would be potentially disastrous.
But here again, Martin’s personnel deployment has been brilliant. Even without Andrei Markov, Roman Hamrlik and Jaro Spacek played less than 20 minutes last night. P.K. – who looks like he could play the entire game – was at 23:17, and his partner, Alexandre Picard, played 18:40.
And of the three Canadiens who played for Pat Burns, did anyone honour his memory better than Hal Gill? The big guy blocked five shots, and everything Burns taught was in evidence in one-on-one confrontations between the slow-but-crafty Gill and the explosively-fast-but frustrated Phil Kessel.
Game 21 will be tougher than Game 20.
And the December schedule is a bitch.
But so far, so surprisingly good.
• • •
I’m not always a fan of the music at the Bell Centre.
We’v had a lifetime’s worth of U2.
But kudos to whoever chose the Beatles In My Life for the Pat Burns video.
Perfect … and as many pundits have observed, good thing the game wasn’t in Toronto, where they have no clue how to do ceremonies.