I will be writing a series of blogs discussing a handful of teams whose expectations were minimal to start the season or even now; within these teams, I believe one will take home the Stanley Cup to their franchise. I am beginning with a team that was doubted from the get-go, the Montreal Canadiens.
After missing the playoffs in the 06/07 campaign, the Habs tweaked some of their woes by dipping in the UFA frenzy, acquiring D Roman Hamrlik, F Tom Kostoupolos and F Bryan Smolinski to bolster their club. Analysts, and fans alike, thought the subtraction of Sheldon Souray would cripple a strong power play, rendering them to the Eastern Conference basement. What made this prediction even more convincing for many was the fact that the Habs got rejected from superstar Daniel Briere, so the second-tier UFA's just didn’t seem like enough. But what many forgot is that the Habs host a strong core of youngsters, and the acquisition of Carey Price to their goaltending would surely add more stability between the pipes.
Well, as of today, the Habs sit second place in the Eastern Conference with 38 wins in 70 games for 85 points. The reason for such success is mainly from the break through performances from the young guns. Tomas Plekanec is atop that category, he currently holds 27 goals and 63 points for second on the team in scoring. His speed and two-way ability is what makes him one of the Canadiens top players. While he is crafty and creative in the offensive zone, he plays almost as well in his own end. He doesn't hit the opposition like teammate Mike Komisarek, but he uses his incredible hockey sense to shut-down offenders down with tremendous stick work. In only his 3rd NHL season, his play shows great potential to be an impact #1 center. While he is behind Saku Koivu on the depth chart, he is now the true #1 on this team, centering a deadly line beside Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexei Kovalev.
Another young player who is making a big impression is Andrei Kostitsyn. In only his second NHL season he has posted 21 goals and 45 points so far. What is so impressive, however, is that he can keep up with top line minutes playing alongside Plekanec and Kovalev and barely show signs of slowing down. One of the main reasons the line shines of speed and creativity is that all three players hold similar traits. It's a scary thought when you consider that Plekanec might have the worst hands on the line. While Kostitsyn doesn’t possess a strong two-way game, he has lots of room to improve in his own end. Every once in a while you will see him throw a big body check too, that is encouraging for the future.
The other Kostitsyn is not too shabby himself. Sergei Kostitsyn was a mid-season call-up, and after displaying raw ability in the offensive zone, the Habs couldn't send him back. Much like his brother, he lacks strong defensive play, but he makes up for it with creative playmaking and a knack for being at the right place at right time to finish a play. In a nutshell, he is exactly like his brother, displaying all the same positives and negatives. Look for them to be paired together in the near future.
While Christopher Higgins has not enjoyed a breakthrough season like the others, he is still developing nicely and shows signs of becoming a Chris Drury type player. In 70 games this season, he has 21 goals and 43 points. He has struggled at times during the season, much like his line mates, but his potential is uncanny. What makes Higgins highly touted in my eyes is his nose for the net and willingness to use his body to finish a play. To go along with that he is responsible in his own end, making him a valuable two-way forward. In Higgins the Habs have a potential 40-goal scorer and considering he has a big heart towards the game, I am excited to see his play come playoff time in a few weeks.
On the back-end, we have Mike Komisarek. Known as a stable defender and monster hitter, "Komi" has upped his game this season, flirting with top-end rankings in almost all defensive stats. Hits, blocked shots, he does it all. A crucial part of his game is his mean streak, if the Habs are in the thick of things, you can expect Komisarek to make sure his teammates aren't getting pushed around. While he rarely translates that with fists, he uses huge body checks to make his statement.
Then there's Carey Price, the now undisputed starting goaltender for the Habs. Touted as the next Luongo by many, he is enjoying a spectacular rookie season, posting a .913 SV%, 2.77 GAA, and 16 wins in 32 games. His big frame and clutch performances helping him along the way, the Habs are expecting him to carry them throughout the playoffs, hoping for a Hamilton Bulldogs repeat. If there is something I noticed about Price this season, it's that he is gradually getting better. His stats are slowly climbing by the game and his problem of letting in the occasional soft goal has slowed considerably. After goaltender Cristobal Huet was traded to the Washington Capitals, Price raised his game to another level, fully feeling the effects of being a starting goaltender in the NHL. If the Habs are going to win the Stanley Cup this season, it will be because of this man.
To go along with a strong core of young players, the Habs owe some of their success to the veterans, who have mentored and crafted the youngster to what they are. I'll start with Kovalev, the Russian native has re-surged this season, showing signs of his New York Rangers days. He is the leader of the Habs, placing first in team scoring with 73 points and 30 goals so far. His creative plays and outstanding hands is what makes him so dangerous, whether he snipes it from the slot or passes it to his line mates Plekanec and A.Kostitsyn, it doesn’t matter, you better be prepared.
A player who has enjoyed a break-through season is Andrei Markov. All who have followed the Habs knew he had it in him, and it appears the departure of Sheldon Souray, making him the pillar on the power play, is just what the doctor ordered. With 14 goals and 54 points this season, it's hard to find negatives about Markov. His shot has improved tremendously, and combined with his accurate passing it makes him a major threat offensively. His defensive game is superb as well, he is not afraid to throw the body every once in a while and he plays a responsible and consistent defensive game.
UFA acquisition Roman Hamrlik has displayed a strong game as well this season, proving to be one of the Habs most valuable players on defense. While he has not garnered a ton of points this season (4 goals, 23 points) his defensive game is sound. His veteran presence has been nothing but beneficial for players like Komisarek too, backstopping one the Eastern Conference’s best defensive squads. It's no coincidence that the Habs went on a slump when Hamrlik was injured, only to find themselves back on track when he returned.
It's hard not to mention Koivu when speaking of any Habs success. While he is not posting numbers he did last season, his leadership and dedication to the Habs is unquestionable. Whether you notice his presence on the Habs or not, you can bet they would be a different team without Koivu in the locker room. While his flame may be starting to dim, the Habs must hold on to Koivu in the coming years if they wish to grasp Lord Stanley with this young squad.
A big part of the Habs success is the power play, and that is no secret. That's why it's so hard to not mention the underrated Mark Streit, who has posted 50 points and 12 goals so far this season. While he is not dependable in his own zone (-10) he has tremendous hockey sense in the offensive zone and sets up players beautifully from blue-line or from anywhere in the zone really -- which why he was often used as a forward on many nights.
Make no mistake, if the Habs core of players raises their game to a new level once mid-April comes around, I'd be very comfortable in predicting them to raise the Stanley Cup. What we must take into account however, is that much of the Habs success comes from the youngsters, and once the playoffs start it's a whole new level of play for them. The Habs will have to make a huge statement in the first round, and much of that will have to revolve around consistency and durability. Beyond that, anything can happen.