The Montreal Canadiens have been the toast of the town thus far this season.
If not for the Toronto Blue Jays putting together their own historic run, the Canadiens could very well be the talk of the nation after starting their 2015-16 season with five straight wins for the first time in the club’s 106-year history.
Take a minute to truly appreciate that fact. Even in the 1950’s when the Canadiens reeled off five straight Stanley Cups, boasting rosters stacked with legends like Jean Beliveau and the Richard brothers, the club still never got out to the type of blazing start that this season’s iteration has. While the hot start proves nothing about the club’s true contender status (as is the case with most things that happen in the NHL in October), the team’s style of play during that five-game span does indicate one thing – the Canadiens may have finally righted their offensive ship.
The club’s offensive woes were well-documented last season, as the Canadiens relied solely on exceptional goaltender Carey Price to net them an exceptional 50-22-10 record and an Atlantic Division title. While Price was indomitable between the pipes for Montreal, the team’s offense finished 20th in the league in terms of goals-for per game (2.61) and total goals scored (214). Even on the man-advantage, the Canadiens managed only a paltry 16.5 percent scoring rate – ranking them 23rd in the league.
Offense hasn’t been an issue this season, however. Five games in, Montreal has already tallied 16 goals (second-best in the league after the Tampa Bay Lightning). Captain Max Pacioretty has led the way with six points (four goals and two assists) in those five games, with linemate Tomas Plekanec right behind with four points (all goals). Both forwards have been putting rubber on the net with notable consistency – Pacioretty’s 21 shots thus far rank second in the league, while Plekanec is ranked sixth with 18 of his own. That’s an astounding amount of offense coming from one line – even if it is only the first month of the season.
It remains to be seen just how effective the Canadiens’ new offense will truly be this year, but if they can shore up this weakness in their game, the historic club could be in for a banner season – one that allows them to finally take the jump from “in the mix” to championship favourite.
The key for Montreal is the fact that they’re already so close, and they have been for quite a while.
The Canadiens have finished among the top three clubs in their division in four of the last five seasons – racking up two division titles during that span, alongside one second place finish and one-third place finish that saw them make it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. The Habs have been knocking on the door, but they’ve always seemed to be lacking that offensive X-factor – the scoring prowess that would allow them to contend with longtime Eastern powerhouses like the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.
However, with an All-Star scorer like Pacioretty – who’s flirted with the 40-goal plateau in each of the last two seasons – that game-changing offensive ability seems extremely attainable. It seems a shift to a more possession-centerd game, and the addition of some savvy veterans, have sped up the club’s progression in this regard, according to Habs head coach Michel Therrien, who recently said the following about his club’s improved offense:
“We’re working a lot more on puck possession. You can’t forget we have some different players. You look at a guy like [Alexander] Semin, the fact we put [Alex] Galchenyuk at center because we think he’s ready, and he’s doing a really good job, [Tomas] Fleischmann, the maturity of our young players like [Nathan] Beaulieu, all that works together.
Semin and Fleischmann have both been solid for their new club, tallying a combined five points through the first five contests. Young gun Alex Galchenyuk seems to be fitting in just fine at the center position as well, potting four points in five games while skating with Semin and Lars Eller.
Montreal’s championship potential cannot be overstated. While the club has come close only to repeatedly fall short, they remain a team already extremely far along in their pursuit of excellence, namely due to the balance of their roster. They boast something that very few other clubs can say they have – a franchise player at all three positions.
At forward is Pacioretty who, while somewhat underrated as one of the top talents in the league, ranks among the top-10 goalscorers of the last half decade with 142 total tallies. He’s surely a well-known commodity, but few realize just how effective Pacioretty truly is, not simply as a goalscorer but as a leader as well. His astounding 21 game-winners over the last two seasons (tied with Alex Ovechkin for most in the league) are surely a notable resume-builder too.
On defense and in the cage are two easy choices – P.K. Subban and Carey Price, who have a combined five NHL trophies between them, and are both perennial contenders for consideration as the best at their positions.
With so much talent spread throughout the roster – and with each of those three players only just entering their primes – it seems the sky is the limit for Montreal. The Canadiens may have had problems arranging their pieces into a cohesive mix in the past, but it seems they may have found a winning formula in 2015-16.
They’ll inevitably fall back to earth with a few losses soon enough, but the hockey would should take note of the club’s blazing scoring prowess, as it could serve as the final piece in the team’s long-awaited championship puzzle.