The Montreal Canadiens began this shortened season with the lowest of expectations. Following such a disastrous 2011-12 campaign, the lockout that delayed the start of this season was seen almost as a blessing to some Habs fans, who were fearing another season as embarrassing as the last.
Canadiens fans would be disappointed in the Habs season when it finished, but not in the way they expected. A fantastic regular season would see them finish with the best record in the Northeast Division, second in the Eastern Conference and fourth in the entire National Hockey League.
Doubts were erased in the minds of Montreal’s fans and an extended playoff run was now expected. However, a disastrous first round would leave the Habs eliminated after just five games against the Ottawa Senators.
It is easy after such a quick exit from the playoffs to focus on the negatives, but this was not a season with many downfalls for Montreal so let’s focus on the positive. There are many positive storylines to reflect on over a much too long offseason for Habs fans.
First off, the Canadiens were relevant once again in the standings after a disastrous campaign that would see them finish third last in the league. Not only did they improve, they shot all the way up to have the fourth best record overall. Bringing in a new General Manager, coaching staff and changing the entire culture around the team, improvements were expected but not as drastic as they occurred this season.
The remarkable turnaround was keyed by an infusion of youth. Alex Galchenyuk, who was selected 3rd overall stepped right into the NHL lineup and posted 27 points in 48 games. Galchenyuk had ups and downs throughout his first NHL campaign but showed flashes of playmaking and skating brilliance that was the reason for such a high selection in the NHL draft.
Brendan Gallagher was every bit as impressive as Galchenyuk in his freshman season. His 15 goals and 28 points in 44 games trailed only Edmonton’s Nail Yakupov and Florida’s Jonathon Huberdeau amongst first year NHLers. Even better than the numbers was that he played the game like a seasoned veteran. Gallagher showed up to play every shift and used every bit of his 5’9 frame to bully his way to the front of his opponents net. Most of his goals were of the ugly variety, coming as a result of his tireless work ethic and tenacious play. Brendan may not be the big power forward that Montreal has been seeking for years, but he certainly plays the game like he is a giant. As a result, Gallagher was nominated for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.
A breakout season from Lars Eller was a pleasant surprise for the Montreal Canadiens this season. The Danish center set a career high in points in only 46 games played. After being a healthy scratch early in the year, Eller got better and better as the season went along. He finished the season with 30 points, including 13 in his last 12 games. Lars has shown an ability to become a strong two way center, the kind of player former General Manager Pierre Gauthier envisioned when he dealt goaltender Jaro Halak to St. Louis to obtain Eller. Beginning the year without the coach’s confidence and receiving very limited power play time, Eller defied the odds to have his best offensive season, finishing fourth on the Habs in points.
The young trio of forwards, Galchenyuk (19), Eller (24) and Gallagher (21), finished 2nd, 3rd and 4th in even strength points among Habs players. They were also 7th, 8th and 9th in power play ice time for Canadiens forwards. Scoring so many points at even strength while clearly labeled as a third line, it is exciting for Habs fans to ponder what the youngsters will be capable of when placed in more prominent roles in the future.
P.K. Subban’s emergence as a top defenceman in the league completed the quartet of youngsters having great seasons. Having displayed an amazing amount of potential since his days in junior with the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League, Subban delivered on his promise this season. Following a contract dispute that would have him miss the first six games on the Habs calendar, Subban stormed his way to the top of the defenceman scoring leaders. P.K. proved to be one of the best all around defenders in the league at just 24 years of age. His 38 points in 42 games led all blueliners and earned him a nomination for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenceman.
Several players made their NHL debut with the Canadiens, including defenders Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi, Greg Pateryn as well as center Gabriel Dumont. All of them asserted themselves in the lineup nicely and Pateryn being the elder statesman of the group at just 22 shows Montreal has some promising youngsters looking to take the next step to the NHL.
In just 48 games the expectation level for this team went from hoping they could qualify for the playoffs, to a team that had many questions to answer as to how they could possibly lose in the first round of those playoffs.
Following one of the worst seasons this great franchise has ever endured, pride needed to be restored. Just one year later, there are plenty of reasons to be proud of the Montreal Canadiens again.
It is now up to the young players to take the next step in their development and fulfill the expectations that they have created.