What has changed?
A week ago, your Montreal Canadiens were 14th in the Eastern Conference.
They had dropped their first four home games of the season – including a nationally-televised loss to Toronto.
Florida was coming to the Bell Centre for what many thought was a game the team had to win to save Jacques Martin’s job.
The Canadiens lost to the Panthers – the first time in their 102-year history the team had dropped five consecutive home games to begin a season.
The drumbeats of discontent intensified. And the Canadiens’s next three games were against Philadelphia and Boston.
In retrospect, you could discern that something clicked in that loss to Florida. The Canadiens fired 41 shots at an unheralded goaltender named Jacob Markstrom, who stopped 40 of them.
Despite their woeful record – 1-5-2 after the loss to Florida – the Canadiens weren’t playing like a team that had quit on their coach.
Peter Budaj, in his first start of the season, was sharp against the Panthers. Erik Cole scored his first goal of the season – on a power play. A viable fourth line was formed after general manager Pierre Gauthier traded Brock Trotter for veteran centre Petteri Nokelainen (18-11 on faceoffs since he got here) and called up Mike Blunden, a big guy who can skate, from Hamilton.
But still, danger loomed in the form of the Flyers and Bruins.
Martin remained an unloved figure – particularly on the English side of the Montreal radio dial, where Mitch Melnick and Tony Marinaro were relentless in demanding the coach be sacked to solve the Canadiens’ problems.
But they used used the wrong word:
“The” coach kept his job, but “a” coach walked the plank.
Less than two hours before the Canadiens took to the ice to face mighty Philadelphia on Wednesday, Gauthier walked into the players’ dressing room to tell them he had fired assistant coach Perry Pearn.
To this day, no one knows precisely why. But the Canadiens stopped scratching their heads long enough to lay a 5-1 thumping on the visitors, then edging Boston 2-1 in a TD Garden thriller 24 hours later.
Suddenly, Martin’s job security improved dramatically. Even a split of the two games against Boston, combined with the two points from beating Philly, would have made for a coach-saving week.
Did anyone – up to and including Martin – expect the Canadiens to beat the Stanley Cup champions twice and take all six points against Philly and Boston?
OK we have to factor in that the Bruins are sucking these days. They can’t score, they take dumb penalties (what’s new?) and Claude Julien – who was fired by a first-place team in New Jersey – is beginning to feel the heat of of a 3-7 start that has Boston last in the East and 29th in the league.
But the Bruins have talent. They are big, and losing makes them even more ornery than usual.
They spent two games targeting P.K. Subban. Shawn Thornton kept up a ceaseless search for dance partners until Travis Moen obliged. Milan Lucic was a guided missile against the Canadiens undersized defencemen.
But Martin, who was more sombre after the Canadiens’ third win in a row than he had been during the losing streak, pointed out that they’re a small team with some size: Blunden, Moen, Cole (who is showing why the Canadiens signed him), Max Pacioretty and Andrei Kostitsyn are not small forwards.
Brian Gionta plays big. And Lars Eller – for me, the revelation of the season to date – is showing signs of becoming the missing link: the big centre sought so desperately when Bob Gainey chased Mats Sundin all over the globe.
The industrious play of the big wingers is opening up ice for David Desharnais, who centres Cole and Pacioretty on the power-play’s Two and a Half Men first wave.
I don’t think forwards have been the Canadiens’ problem.
While the team has bulked up on the wings, the defence is still undersized. Hal Gill uses his reach effectively but plays small in terms of hitting. Raphael Diaz and Yannick Weber are skilled but undersized. Josh Gorges plays big because of the size of his heart.
The defenceman who was supposed to supply some thump is sitting in the pressbox. And Alexei Emelin will stay there while the team is winning. My Russian spies tell me Emelin is not happy. He is seventh Dman on the depth chart and will slip to eighth – and to Hamilton, if he agrees to go – if/when Andrei Markov returns.
The big story on D is the return of Jaro Spacek.
Injured during his second shift against Winnipeg when Evander Kane belted him against the boards, Spatcho missed four games; and the Canadiens lost them all.
He returned in that Florida game the Canadiens should have won, and Spacek has been a shot-blocking machine in the three wins since:
Five blocked shots against Philadelphia, six in Boston, seven against the Bruins on Saturday night.
If the trend continues, Spatcho will block eight shots when the Canadiens return to action Friday in Ottawa.
And maybe he’ll have to. The team will be rusty (they don’t practice until Tuesday morning), and the Senators are one of the surprising Eastern Conference teams – Northeast-leading Leafs? WTF?? – the Canadiens are chasing as they climb back into the race.
Are happy days here again?
As evidenced by Martin’s funereal demeanour, irrational exuberance may be premature.
But there are positive indicators.
And five days without games won’t be filled with ranting from the torch-and-pitchfork crowd.