First place in the division and second in the Eastern Conference after 30 games.
When have we seen this movie before?
Not all that long ago.
Last March 21, the Canadiens celebrated the vernal equinox by beating the Islanders 5-2 on Long Island.
The win moved them two points ahead of Boston in the Northeast Division.
The Canadiens were three points behind Pittsburgh for the conference lead.
On paper, last year’s edition was a better team after 30 games.
The Canadiens were 20-5-5. They had scored 97 goals and allowed 75, a differential of plus-22.
Thursday night’s thrilling 2-1 conquest of the Bruins at the Bell Centre lifted the Canadiens to a record of 18-9-3 – six points fewer than they had after 30 games last season.
They’ve scored 82 and allowed 63, a differential of plus-19.
So with the numbers favouring last spring’s Montreal Canadiens, how come I like this autumn’s team more?
Two words: Carey Price.
Another word: Character.
Both were the keys to victory in a game of playoff-level intensity against a very good Boston team.
In stopping 32 Boston shots – half of which were directed at him during the third period – Price outplayed Tuukka Rask, whom the Canadiens beat twice on 27 shots. Price has allowed two or fewer goals in his last nine starts. He’s gone 7-1-1 with a goals-against average of 1.54 and a .951 save percentage.
Since the season began, Price is 13-8-2 with a GAA of 1.95 and a save percentage of .938. Under the tutelage of Stéphane Waite – general manager Marc Bergevin’s best off-season acquisition – Price is playing the best hockey of his career.
He and Peter Budaj give the Canadiens a chance to win every night – and the chance is being seized by a gutty team that has not lost a game in regulation since Nov. 16.
All the portents pointed to a Boston win Thursday night.
The Bruins were well rested – idle since Saturday.
The Canadiens were playing their second game in as many nights, their sixth in nine days. The span has included three back-to-back sets.
Yes, the Canadiens are healthy, with only Rene Bourque unavailable for duty. But the schedule has been a bitch – and it’s not about to get better.
A visit by the rarely-seen-in-these-parts L.A. Kings next Wednesday kicks off a sequence of seven games in 11 days, including visits to resurgent Philadelphia, St. Louis and Nashville, just before the Christmas break.
It’s the old cliché: No rest for the weary – and no respite for the allegedly undersized.
With a lineup that included Brian Gionta, David Desharnais, Brendan Gallagher and Daniel Brière, the Canadiens outhit the big, bad Bruins 30-18. No fewer than 14 Canadiens had hits, led by Alexei Emelin (no surprise there) and Lars Eller (WTF!!!) with five each.
Gallagher had four hits. Zdeno Chara had two, Milan Lucic one.
Your Montreal Canadiens are a small hockey team.
But as someone – I think it was Michael Vick – once said: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
Almost every time he was on the ice, Gallagher did something to harass Chara. The kid never stops skating, he never gives up on a puck battle.
That energy is contagious. It has certainly jolted Gallagher’s linemates, Desharnais and Max Pacioretty.
I though Michaël Bournival had a similarly energizing effect on Gionta and Tomas Plekanec – although the latter is playing great hockey no matter who’s on his wing. It’s worth noting Pleks was 14-12 on faceoffs against the Bruins, while Patrice Bergeron, who usually owns the circle, was 12-16.
It was far from an artistic triumph that you’ll be watching on DVD 10 years from now. The power play was awful, and the Bruins dominated the first and third periods.
Daniel Brière added a bit of offensive zip to his new line and meshed well with Eller. But Alex Galchenyuk struggled and played 8:13 – second lowest ToI to George Parros’s 5:24.
Some mebers of the Commentariat thought the presence of Parros inhibited Bruin goonery. I’m not so sure. But Boston did not target Pacioretty after that hit on Johnny Boychuk – and props to Claude Julien for saying it was a two-minute penalty and nothing more.
The teams will meet in Boston on Jan. 30 and twice more in March. We may see more of the mayhem that has marred past encounters, but I’m hoping for three more games in which the rivals stick to hockey.
• Oops, forgot to mention defencemen.
I thought Raphael Diaz, who set up Pacioretty’s game-winning goal, was excellent. Josh Gorges kept his cool against a frequently ferocious Boston forecheck and ended the game at plus-2. P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov were each minus-1 – which, for me, renders the stat meaningless. And Douglas Murray had two hits, a couple of blocked shots and joined Emelin in bringing the physical D that is useful against the Bostons of the league.