Montreal Canadiens at the half-way mark: Contenders or Pretenders?

Mar 16, 2013; Newark, NJ, USA; New Jersey Devils goalie Johan Hedberg (1) makes a save through a screen by Montreal Canadiens center David Desharnais (51) during the third period at the Prudential Center. The Canadiens defeated the Devils 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Just over the halfway mark of the season, the Montreal Canadiens sit atop the Northeast Division with 42 points and currently second in the Eastern Conference. This leaves them 2 points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins holding 2 games in hand, while the Boston Bruins remain right on their heels at 1 point holding 1 game in hand. On a 5-game winning streak, and 7-1-2 in their last 10, the Montreal Canadiens are the polar opposite of the train-wreck that put up the worst record in franchise history in the 2011-2012 season – though admittedly that train-wreck allowed them to draft an elite talent in Alex Galchenyuk.

I was highly skeptical of the decision to hire a retread in Michel Therrien and a listless 2-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t do much to inspire confidence. But, here we are, on March 17th with an overall record of 19-5-4 and with a point percentage of 0.750. Even in terms of strict numbers, the improvement is easily identified. The 2012-2013 Canadiens score on average 3.14 goals/game, compared to the paltry 2.52 goals/game in 2011-2012. Their 5v5 goals-for/against ratio improved from 0.95 to 1.45; and their powerplay is in the top 10 (20.3%) compared to having the 3rd worst powerplay in the league last season. I’d probably attribute most of the improvement due to a system in place that requires an aggressive and speedy forecheck that should be the strength of this team. The resurgence of a healthy Andrei Markov (18 points in 28 games, with all of his 5 goals coming on the PP), the continued surge of P.K Subban (20 pts in 22 games) and the greater offensive contributions across the roster also play a key role in the offensive resurgence.

One area where the Canadiens seem to have regressed is the penalty kill. Last year, one of the (very) few highlights of the season was possessing the league’s 2 best penalty kill unit 88.6%, trailing only the New Jersey Devils. This year, they’ve dropped down to 19th with a success rate of only 79.8%. Considering that the Canadiens were expected to at the very least sustain this percentage with the addition of defensively solid forwards like Colby Armstrong and Brandon Prust to an already strong unit, the drop in PK success is quite a surprise. A second area of concern for the Canadiens is face-offs: they currently sit 22nd out of 30 teams with a success rate of only 48.4%. This is fairly similar to where they were last year, and considering they’ve largely kept the same centers, their lack of improvement in this facet of the game isn’t that surprising. Those two areas are key moving forward, as a possession team the Canadiens might want to focus on either getting better off the draw or bringing in someone to win draws. The penalty kill strategy might be fixable by coaching, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bergevin bring in a depth forward at the deadline to shore up these areas.

Overall, there’s a lot to like about this edition of the Canadiens. Led by a strong youth core in Max Pacioretty, PK Subban, David Desharnais and Carey Price, this team has most likely guaranteed itself a spot in the post-season after finishing last in the East last season. Buoyed by exceptional performances from  Lars Eller, Alexei Emelin, Raphael Diaz, Brandon Prust and recently-returned Michael Ryder, the team has been lucky enough to have solid two-way contributions from their rookies – Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. Combined, this has become a team worth watching. I’d call them a contender at this point, if they can shore up some of the weaker aspects of their play thus far (namely, the PK and faceoffs) and add some size/toughness. They might not win the Northeast (though we can dream!), but continuing at this pace should give them a shot at home ice advantage. As the 8th place Los Angeles Kings showed last year, anything can happen once you get into the playoffs.

At this midpoint, here are my three stars of the campaign so far:

1. Brendan Gallagher: At a tiny 5’9 and 178 pounds, he’s been absolutely fearless at driving the net, cashing in rebounds and generally annoying opposing D-men and goaltenders. He’s exceeded my expectations and creates a chance on almost every single shift. Sitting 3rd overall in rookie scoring, with 8G 8A in in 24 games, his performance has been one of the shining moments of 2012-2013 so far.

2. Lars Eller: I remember my reaction to hearing 2010 playoff hero Halak was traded, and remember asking myself who Lars Eller was. I’m convinced we won’t be asking that for much longer with the growth seen over the past season and a half. With 15 points in 26 games, the 23 year-old center is becoming a core part of this team both offensively and defensively.

3. Brandon Prust: Perhaps the most-talked about acquisition in the off-season, and most pundits thought it was for far too much money and term. With his performance to date, Prust has proven to be the glue and heart of this edition of the Montreal Canadiens. Beyond also contributing on the scoreboard, he’s dropped the gloves on several occasions, sets the tone physically and been an excellent line mate for the two rookies. So many intangibles that the Canadiens desperately needed after the embarrassment of 2011-2012.

Honorable mentions: Alexei Emelin, Alex Galchenyuk, Tomas Plekanec and Carey Price.

Topics: Canadiens, Predictions

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