The Montreal Canadiens have finished the first half of their regular season and are possibly the most pleasant surprise in the entire league. Sure, Chicago going this long without losing in regulation is hard to believe, but no one is surprised that they are the top team in the league. With all the injuries in Ottawa, it is hard to believe they keep winning, but they were a playoff team last year and are battling to be one again this season.
Which brings us back to the Habs. From the bottom of the East just last season to tops in the conference at the halfway point this year. It is quite an impressive turnaround for a franchise that desperately needed it. Let’s face it, fans in Montreal would never accept a slow and painful rebuild like fans in Edmonton are being forced to deal with.
So, how exactly did the Habs make everything right almost overnight? Are the Habs really as good as they have shown thus far?
There are many similarities between the 2013 version of the Montreal Canadiens and the debacle that was the 2012 Canadiens. However, there are three key differences that have shot the Habs from worst to first.
One key difference has been that this year’s Habs have a balanced lineup. The Habs did not add any major offensive weapons in the offseason, as a matter of fact, their top six was identical on opening night to the one that finished last season. However, with the arrival of Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher and the emergence of Lars Eller, suddenly the Habs have a top nine that is not overwhelming offensively but is still a deep three lines that can all contribute on the scoresheet.
Last season, when Rene Bourque struggled to find his way on Plekanec’s wing, the Habs had no choice but to try Travis Moen and Ryan White on the second line. Of course it did not work but there was simply no other options. This season, when Bourque was injured, Montreal had the luxury of moving Galchenyuk up a line, or sliding Eller on the wing or trying Ryder on the second line.
Another important difference between your current Habs and the Habs from a year ago is they are tougher to play against. By tougher I don’t just mean they fight more, I mean that when opponents leave the Bell Centre after a game this year, they have plenty more bumps and bruises than they did a year ago.
The additions of Colby Armstrong, Francis Bouillon and especially Brandon Prust have helped this category tremendously. Also, the fact the Habs have a very functional fourth line for the first time since their centennial season makes them a very different team.
For example, this season Travis Moen is able to focus on being a fourth line banger instead of a hybrid between shutdown third line winger and second line sorta-scorer like he was asked to be last year. This may not sound like a lot but when players show up to the rink knowing their role and what they will be asked to do each and every night, it makes for a much more functional team.
The biggest difference between last season’s disaster and this season’s success has been Andrei Markov. Markov played 13 games for the Habs toward the end of last season but it was obvious he was uncomfortable and was not the Markov that Habs fans remembered. This season has been different.
Markov has been playing some of the best hockey of his career since the first game of this season. He may score all of his points on the power play but he is far from being a PP specialist. He plays more minutes than any other Hab defender and while he doesn’t score much at 5 on 5, neither do his opponents. Markov plays over 24 minutes per game and is always matched against his opponents best players. While he only has one point at even strength, he is just a minus 1 on the season and only Josh Gorges is on the ice more while shorthanded. Markov plays in all situations and is the number one defenceman Montreal was searching for last season.
Being paired with countryman Alexei Emelin since the first game of the year has worked wonders for the younger Russian. Last season, Emelin was a hard hitting defender who got caught running around a little too much and would have been considered a 5/6 type defenceman. This year with Markov as his personal Professor, he looks much calmer, much smarter, much better. Suddenly, Emelin is a legit top 4 defender and thanks to Markov, he can hold down a spot on the first defence pair.
Markov is simply that good that he makes his partner significantly better and by extension makes his team significantly better.
However, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, the truth is 24 games is a fairly small sample size. Last season after 24 games, Toronto was leading the Northeast division and in second place in the East. By the 48 game mark they were out of the playoff picture. So, although the Habs have themselves on top of the east standings at the halfway point of the season they still have to prove themselves over the second half of the season.
The reality is, the Boston Bruins are nipping at their heels already and have a few less games played, meaning they could surpass the Habs for first while Montreal has days off. The biggest problem with this is that they are in the same division so Montreal can not finish second if Boston is first. The Habs would drop immediately to fourth.
Montreal has shown enough to prove they are not the same team that we were forced to endure last season. However, they still have plenty to prove before we can believe they are legit contenders for the Eastern Conference title.
It is going to be a fascinating second half to watch Habs fans.
Buckle up. Anything is possible.