So here it is, the end of a long (or short
) 82 game season. If there can be one word attributed to this team throughout the entire course of the year, I think it would be "Surprises". You could, no doubt, tag them with chemistry or hard work, but surprises seems to come to the forefront no matter how you look at the season.
First one should look at the obvious when analysing the word of the year. TSN, Sportsnet, ESPN, and countless other sports networks ruled out the Canadiens out right from the get-go. 14th, 13th, some even as low as 15th in terms of overall predictions by the mass media. Well... Surprise! The Habs season was nothing short of miraculous as our team's heart and soul shown through in what has become the team's first conference title since they won the cup back in 1993. Couple with the best points record achieved by the team since 1988 with 104 in the bank this season, it's safe to say the Habs surprised a few 'professionals'. Who would have thought a team with whom was declared to have no "star" player and certainly not a star studded offence such as Ottawa or Pittsburgh, would have come out number one after 82 games? Not many, not even myself.
Well, just how did this grand season of spledour come to pass? Well, it came with several smaller scale surprises, most notably, the resurgence of Alex Kovalev. I know that by this time you've heard all the stats, you've heard the mention of the dismal season and being cut from the Russian national team, so why repeat it any longer? Why not focus on the good. This years Alex Kovalev did it all. He scored timely goals, he set up jaw-dropping plays, he threw jaw-breaking hits, he dug in the corners (so hard, often that he may have even have lost a glove! But don't worry, he got it back,
). But it wasn't just his offensive game that improved, but his defensive game, too. How many fans of Montreal, or of any other team would have believe us if we would have told them that Alex Kovalev would be on our #1 penalty killing line and doing a hell of a job of it, too? How many people would have guessed that he'd back check harder than most of the team and even pull pucks off the goal line at the last second? How many people would have expected to have seen Kovalev stand right in the way of the shots, injuring his hand in the process, only to soak it in a cup on the bench, come out and continue to dominate next shift? The man found his happy place, he found his bag of marbles and now enjoys the serenade of the crowd after every great play, which was often, I might add. The man hopes to play until he's 50, and hell, I hope he does.
How about the emergence of some of the young players? Who expected to see both Kostitsyn's on the team half way through the season and being as much of an impact as they were? Who expected Andrei to come and get 1 more point than Chris Higgins with 5 games played less? He showed his great passing skills at the end of the year last season where he accumulated 1G and 11A, and hey! We had a great playmaker! Wait, what? 26 goals? Several of them in highlight fashion? Where did that bus come from?
Tomas Plekanec. Do I really need to say any more than that? Probably not, but I will. To all those who claimed that playing with Kovalev was far to intimidating for him, I think Plekanec has something to say to you. A whole 29G and 40A worth of something to say. For 3 seasons now we've watched this young player improve by leaps and bounds, pole-vaulting himself into the #1 centre position on the team and recording the 2nd most points. 2 seasons ago I was happy with the fact we had a solid 2-way centre who could chip in a goal here or there. Last year I was pleasantly surprised by a 20 goal performance and thought "Hey, great! We now have a great 3rd line centre to fit in with Koivu and whatever UFA we sign!". About that UFA centre... $10 million well unspent. What's Briere's +/- again? -22? How about Plekanec with only 2G and 1A less? +15. His smart, technical play on both ends of the ice have made the 25 year old centre a fan favourite at the Bell Centre. Whether he's scoring goals, setting up Kovalev, or intercepting passes on the PK, this kid has a bright future.
At this point in time, I'm going to come out and declare that the Habs won the trade between MTL and SJ. Craig Rivet for Josh Gorges + 1st round pick (Max Pacioretty) has turned out quite well for Montreal. "Patches" is in the Frozen Four with his team and Josh Gorges has become an integral part of the Canadiens' blueline, filling in for the massive shoes of Mike Komisarek when he went down with injury. Gorges had proven that he was solid as a #5/6 defenseman with Bouillon, but would he be able to handle over 20 minutes a game against top line players? Simply put? Yes. Gorges showed that he'd do whatever it took to win a game. He lay his body on the line every night. How many times have we ragged on a player for hearing footsteps going into the corner? Gorges hears those footsteps and ignores them, making the play with the puck as his body gets slammed into the boards countless times a night. Who else remembers him flying right to his Captain's aid as Ryan Hollweg decided to take advantage of a situation? He's the consummate team player and deflects all credit to the team despite the fact he deserves quite a bit of credit himself. Oh yeah, and he's only 23,
How about Carey Price? Calm, cool, and collected. Each game I half expect him to start standing up and leaning on his stick until teams cross his blue-line. The other half of the time I'm expecting the Statue of Liberty after a stellar glove save, but then remember he's not that arrogant. If there's one thing that Carey Price has done this season, it's proved that his WJC gold, MVP award, along with his Calder Cup and Jack Butterfield trophy were not fluke. The guy is for real and you can see it with each successive awe-inspiring save that I'm sure half of us expected to see his the twine. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a goalie who will step up when the time is needed and teach Everest how to stand tall. I'll admit, I was skeptical after the Huet trade, in fact, I was down right terrified. But now I sit down on my coach for each game knowing that there's a great chance the team is coming out with 2 points, even if the forwards come out flat and the defensemen are scrambling.
The powerplay is yet another amazing surprise. #1 in the league last year powered by the atomic fushion of Souray's cannon and his 26 goals. This year, Mark Streit, Alex Kovalev, and Andrei Markov quarterbacked the PP to the exact same heights and with more than one play to top it all off! Suddenly teams had to be worried about more than a shot from the point as the PP had 5 players on the ice that could compromise the twine. And they did.
Roman Hamrlik has done more for this team than anyone can imagine. By solidifying the blue line, not only has goals against diminished greatly, not only has our back end become more stable, not only is the front of the net clear and pucks shot out of the zone quicker, but with the solid defensive play of the Canadiens and not spending the entire game in the zone the Canadiens have become the most offensive team in the league. With 262 goals to the year the Canadiens are #1 in the league. Sure Hammer only had a marginal amount of those, but strong defensive play leads to offense as Carbo's system has shown.
Depth. Thank you Hamilton for your Calder Cup run, it's serving the Habs well. Our farm system has now given us the depth of being the able to be missing our #2 and 2 defensemen and still win games readily. Not only that, but the farm system has shot out a fury of offensive balance giving us 7 players of over 50 points. A far cry from the 3 we had last year...
How about exorcising the Brodeur demon? Yet another unexpected stat with a 3-1 record versus the Devils. It seems almost as impressive as overcoming a 5-0 deficit half way through a game to winning 6-5! Do you still tingle when you think about that game? I do.
So now at the end of a long road, far from the early cries of mediocrity. Far from the boos of an initially poor home-ice record (who else remembered that, eh? A little different sound in the BC now!). Far from being Brodeur's whipping boys. Far from the ineptitude of last year's 5 on 5 play. Far from the painful media coverage. Far from a rookie laden team that was too young to accomplish anything, and most importantly, far from 14th in the conference, here are your Eastern Conference Champions, the Montreal Canadiens heading into the playoffs in what we hope will be a long and emotional affair.