Looking Back at a remarkable Season and Debunking Some Misleading Facts

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    Dateline: March 28th, 2008: Montreal Canadiens are in second place in the Eastern Conference and lead the Northeast division with 96 points with a guaranteed playoff berth.

    If you would have seen this headline before the start of this season, you would of thought it was a cruel practical joke or early April fool’s day gag. After all, most hockey “experts” didn’t just predict the Canadiens would miss the 2008 playoffs but would be luck if they finished out of the basement depth of the Eastern Conference. Almost every “respected” (I’m using this term rather loosely) hockey publication/network were unanimous in their view of the 2007-08 edition of the Montreal Canadiens:

    The Hockey News: Canadiens to finish in 13th place in the Eastern conference.

    McKeen’s Hockey: Canadiens to finish in 8th place in the Eastern conference. At least they had them in the playoffs.

    Hockeybuzz (Howard Berger): Canadiens to finish in 14th place in the Eastern conference……..what does a guy covering the Maple Leafs know about a winning team or making the playoffs!!!

    Gazette (Pat Hickey): “Look for the Canadiens to finish eighth – behind the Senators, Hurricanes, Rangers, Penguins, Thrashers, Flyers and Sabres.” Again, at least Hickey had them in the playoffs.

    Tony Marinaro (Team 990): “I dont have them in my Top 8.” Marinaro’s predictions: 2007-08 NHL Predictions.

    P.J. Stock (Team 990 and CBC sports): If I’m not mistaken, Stock had the Canadiens out of the playoffs and the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs. He also thought Toronto was the better team before and even at the start of the season.

    Habster: I admit to writing before the season started that the Canadiens would struggle to make the playoffs. I also thought they would finish at best in the #7 or #8 spot in the Eastern Conference…….nobody is perfect!!!!

    You can also add many more to the above list as these were the only predictions I could find on the Internet, heard on the radio or seen in writing……..we have to be factual, folks!

    What has bothered me at times during the season and even now are the naysayers/critics (ie-the P.J. Stocks of the world!!) who try to tear down the Canadiens accomplishments thus far this season……..let’s take a look back at the facts, fictions and accomplishments of the Montreal Canadiens season.

    There is no question the Canadiens have accomplished more than anyone could have imagined and have been the most consistent team in the Eastern Conference. They have avoided prolonged slumps by not losing more than three games in a row and have played extremely well on the road going 23-11-4 heading into their game against Buffalo tomorrow night.

    Another reason they’re currently leading the Eastern Conference is that they have the best record against teams in their own conference going 40-19-8. I realize eight of those wins are against the Bruins alone but give the Habs credit for dominating Boston throughout the season.

    Lack of Injuries

    Some hockey pundits will also casually point out that the Canadiens have avoided the injury bug (only 94 man games lost to date) and have been extremely lucky in that regard. The Canadiens rank 3rd in the NHL with regards to the least man games lost to injury, just behind the very healthy Atlanta Thrashers and Phoenix Coyotes……teams that will not make the playoffs, so much for that argument!!!!

    The flip side of the equation are teams that have sustained a lot of injuries yet have had success: Detroit (160+ games lost to injuries=108 points), San Jose (200+ games lost to injuries=100 points), Pittsburgh (245+ games lost to injuries=95 points).

    Basicly, having a lot injuries or not having many of them doesn’t always translate to failure or success during the season.

    Balanced Attack At Even Strength

    Another argument I hear occasionally is that the Canadiens are too “dependent” on their powerplay unit for offensive production. Here again, the facts state otherwise, with the Habs having more success at even strength situations than they did last season (144 goals (77 games) compared to 126 goals (82 games) ).

    There is no denying the powerplay is an important element to the Canadiens success this year but they don’t depend on it as much as they did last season. When you break down their goal production thus far, it’s a relatively balanced attack:

    2007-08 (after 77 games):

    Even strength: 144 (58%) PP: 85 (34%) Shorthanded: 10 (4%) Empty net: 7 (3%) Pen. shot:1
    2006-07 (82 games):

    Even strength: 126 (53%) PP: 86 (36%) Shorthanded: 15 (6%) Empty net: 10 (4%) Pen. shot:2

    Fountain of Youth and Youthful Success

    While some people will still deny the Canadiens their rightful credit for a very good season, there is no denying the biggest reason for their success…………..Alex Kovalev is drinking from the fountain of youth while his younger teammates are only starting to understand their youthful potential.

    The combination of a rejuvenated Alex Kovalev and unexpected quality production from a talented group of youngsters has driven the Canadiens great season. Kovalev wanted to prove his critics wrong after a sluggish and unproductive season last year. Many thought his best years were behind him and that he lacked the drive to show up for every game. Fast forward to the present……….stop and listen for a moment……..the quietness you hear are Kovalev’s critics!!!.

    He has had an amazing season (GP-77 G-33 A-46 Pt-79 +17) and has taken the team onto his back and carrying them with great success. He has become a team leader and is a mentor to some of the younger players especially the Kostitsyn brothers, Grabovski, Plekanec and Markov to name a few. There have been games where he has dominated the pace of the play and has made defensemen look foolish. Not only is he playing a vital role on the powerplay, Kovalev is even back checking with a purpose and killing penalties as well…….he is totally engaged in every aspect of the game.

    Like AK-27, the success of the young players has also been a huge factor in the team’s climb to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The meteoric rise of players like Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, Josh Gorges, Carey Price and Tomas Pleckanec has been the biggest surprise of the season without a doubt. Add to the mix the further maturation and development of Christopher Higgins, Andrei Markov, Mark Streit and Mike Komisarek and you have a solid foundations for future prosperity with an eye towards a Stanley Cup championship.

    In hindsight, maybe we shouldn’t be terribly shocked by the way these players have played this season. Some of them (Pleckanec, Komisarek, A. Kostitsyn, Lapierre and Higgins immediately come to mind) were responsible for the team’s late season run at a playoff spot last year.

    Let’s Not forget the Willy Vets

    Every team needs veteran players who can help balance things on and off the ice……..that’s where solid players like Saku Koivu, Roman Hamrlik, Alex Kovalev, Steve Begin and Bryan Smolinski play large roles. They’ve been through a lot of hockey experiences and can help settle down a relatively young lineup (6th youngest NHL roster) on and off the ice.

    The Carbo/Gainey Factors

    Can you name a better GM/coach tandem in the NHL than Gainey/Carbonneau?………alright, maybe the Burke/Carlyle duo or the Holland/Babcock combo or even the Wilson/Wilson tandem (sounds like a law firm!!) would be a slight step above them but let’s give credit where credit is deserved. Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau have done a terrific job with a very young and talented group of players regardless if they’ve avoided any major injuries.

    I have to admit that I was sometimes critical of Guy Carbonneau plan of action during the first half of the season. He still had communication issues with some of his players (ie- Steve Begin), handled his goalies in an odd manner at times and was constantly changing his lineup. It almost appeared as if he had not completely learned from last season’s coaching experiences but over time, he has become a very good coach (sorry Rocket!!, we have to agree to disagree) who appears to completely understand his team and its capabilities. His team plays hard for him each night and he has earned their respect over time……….and he seems to have stopped his chemistry experiments just in time to allow his lines to gel before the playoffs start…..Thank God!!!

    Any coach’s success is directly connected to the philosphy of the organization and especially its general manager’s approach to his duties. With the constant external pressures of winning now from the media and fan base, Bob Gainey has been extremely patient and has maintained his belief/plan to rebuild the Canadiens organization through smart drafting of players (Trevor Timmins gets a ton of credit here as well!!!). He has been steadfast in his approach and the results speak for themselves. Gainey could have traded away the prospect depth that has been cultivated over the past 2 or 3 years but instead he allowed it to develop and become an intrigue part of the current roster.

    While he has made the Habs better through the draft, Gainey has also made numerous attempts to sign big name UFAs (ie-Ryan Smyth and Daniel Briere) and attempted to make a deal at the trade deadline for players like Hossa, Tanguay and Sundin………so it wasn’t from a lack of effort on his part. There have been some good signings like the rock solid addition of Roman Hamrlik and role players like Bryan Smolinski, Tom Kostopoulos.

    Overall, Gainey, the coaching staff and the players have laid a very solid foundation for years to come including a potential Stanley Cup contender this year and for next year’s centennial celebration.