State of the Habs, Part 2 – Games 5-8: Rinse & Repeat

With Pacioretty back in the fold, the Canadiens have three lines that are threats to score. (PHOTO: HE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Graham Hughes)

State of the Habs is a 12-part feature series where I’ll break down the Habs season into 4-game chunks and look at players who are under- or over-performing during that time, while commenting on issues surrounding the team.

Overview – 4 Game Segment 2/12

Season Last Four Games
Record 6-2-0 3-1-0
Goal Differential +9 +3
Leading Scorer Markov (4-4-8) Plekanec (2-2-4)
Hot (L4 GP) Galchenyuk (0-4-4)
Cold (L4 GP) Gionta (0-1-1)

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

TORONTO, ON – After a hot start to the 2013 NHL season saw the Canadiens rattle off a 3-1-0 record, they repeated the feat as their next act, and this in a week that included two back-to-backs and three big matchups against divisional rivals. The early season successes have been true team efforts, with the club having line-up free of true “scapegoats” or “weak links” for a first time in recent memory.

The team’s 6-2-0 record has propelled it into the top-10 of NHL power rankings and they have impressed analysts and fans league-wide. While it would be easy to give everyone a top notch grade for their performance to date, here we break down some individuals of note.

Surpassing Expectations

Of all the pleasant surprises in Montreal thus far, there is perhaps none greater than the resurgence of Rene Bourque. Three goals and five points in eight games aren’t mind-blowing statistics, but if you compile the number of chances Bourque has had, he is truly only inches away from already being near the 10-goal plateau. His 21 shots rank third on the Canadiens behind linemates Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta, and he has become one of the team’s more ferocious forecheckers. In fact, his play without the puck is truly the biggest change to his game, as he charges the net fearlessly, posting himself in the difficult spots, which is something that his play largely lacked last season.

Has there been a more steady and dependable player on the Montreal Canadiens in recent years than Tomas Plekanec? He may not always be flashy – depriving him of the media headlines he deserves – but the Czech has re-emerged as the team’s No. 1 centre in all capacities as a threat all over the ice. It’s hard to peg the role he will fill on any given night, but over the past four games, he has only once played under 20 minutes (19:36, coincidentally in the team’s only loss) and in that outing he registered a game-high six shots on goal. While Montreal’s penalty kill has had its early struggles, it is hard to pin any on Plekanec, who is a regular threat to counterattack and produce chances shorthanded. At the other end, he sits tied with rookie Alex Galchenyuk for the team lead in points among forwards.

On the subject of Galchenyuk, we couldn’t speak of surpassing expectations without mentioning he and fellow rookie Brendan Gallagher. While he perhaps shouldn’t be the one honoured with the first Molson Cup presentation as he will be before tonight’s game, Galchenyuk continued to show that he certainly deserved to spend the rest of the campaign in the NHL rather than returning to Sarnia. He has developed nice chemistry with Gallagher – the two generating at least one quality chance in every game – and the former Vancouver Giant’s energy, infectious smile, and hard-nosed game can only be positive influences on the American. While the pair have played largely sheltered minutes (a main factor in Gallagher’s team-leading plus-6) – and for the most part along with babysitter Brandon Prust – it should only be a matter of time before they are tried with a more offensively gifted winger and force other teams to key in on them or face defeat.

With Pacioretty back in the fold, the Canadiens have three lines that are threats to score. (PHOTO: HE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Graham Hughes)
With Pacioretty back in the fold, the Canadiens have three lines that are threats to score. (PHOTO: THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Graham Hughes)

The biggest surprise of the past four games came Sunday, however, with the return of Max Pacioretty to the line-up just eight days after undergoing an emergency appendectomy that was originally expected to keep him out three-to-four weeks. Pacioretty looked no worse for wear, collecting an assist – his fifth point in four games this season – as the Canadiens avenged their loss to Ottawa from earlier in the week. With center David Desharnais finally showing signs of life, and Erik Cole on the board with a couple of goals, the line that was by far Montreal’s best last season may be rounding into form which would give the team a truly balanced attack that will be difficult for other teams to defend.

The Letdowns

With the way the team has started, there are few elements of the team’s game to pick on. The penalty killing, however, is one of them, as the new looks and personnel aren’t proving effective when down a man in the early going.

After being bought out by Toronto, it was thought that Colby Armstrong could bring all of P.K. support, toughness, and perhaps even secondary scoring. While the fourth line has been effective, and Armstrong hasn’t been terrible by any means, he is proving the Leafs right for parting ways with his services more than he’s enjoying a season of redemption thus far. He is the only Hab other than Yannick Weber (who has played only one game) yet to register a point, and he has not impressed as the team’s second most used forward in shorthanded situations (after Plekanec).

Like Armstrong, Travis Moen is a quality character vet in the locker room who brings toughness on-ice. However, lockout rust seems apparent in his game as he looks a step slower than he has in past seasons since joining the team. For a primarily defensive forward, Moen is a team-worst minus-2, and while normally dependable, he has found himself behind the play too often as the third most employed penalty killing forward. If Michel Therrien is serious about rewarding good play with ice time, at some point he’ll have to consider sitting one of Moen or Armstrong to play both Lars Eller and Ryan White on the same night.

A healthy scratch for the first time this season on Sunday (a minor injury saw him miss another game previously), Tomas Kaberle looks to be in his last days as a Montreal Canadien. Kaberle will be sitting out again tonight, firmly entrenched as the No. 7 blueliner when everyone is healthy. His big contract makes him a likely candidate to be compliance bought out at year’s end – unless, that is, Marc Bergevin can find a taker for him prior to then. One interesting thought on that would be a team without significant financial constraints and in need of help on defense might be more willing to take a gamble on Kaberle knowing that they could buy him out themslves without taking a cap hit at year’s end should he not regain form wearing another new jersey. If he does stay, however, coach Therrien has repeated that he doesn’t like to keep players sitting long (yeah, tell that to Yannick Weber), so Kaberle should  see action again at some point, though it is difficult to see who he would replace. In either case, if this team continues to look like it may battle for a playoff spot, defensive depth is welcome, though it may also be felt that having the likes of Jarred Tinordi and Frederic St. Denis in Hamilton are sufficient munitions to open a door for moving Kaberle.

The Road Ahead

With another back-to-back on the horizon, will Peter Budaj get a second start? (PHOTO: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America)
With another back-to-back on the horizon, will Peter Budaj get a second start? (PHOTO: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America)

There’s nothing wrong with being excited by the early season results, but any talk of playoffs or contention at this stage needs to be tempered with a dose of realism. The fact is that the Canadiens’ schedule over the first eight games favoured the team, with six games in the friendly confines of the Bell Centre and none against top clubs like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, or New York Rangers. The real tests lie ahead then, beginning with Boston tonight, a third straight back-to-back as the team travels to Buffalo for tomorrow, a rematch with the Leafs – one of the two teams to beat them – on Saturday, and then the fiery offensive Tampa Bay Lightning next Tuesday.

Certainly, you can’t blame the Habs for the schedule-makers doing them a bit of a favour as they try to find their legs for sprint of a shortened regular season, and they should be credited for doing exactly what they’ve had to thus far. Losing games that they were supposed to (read: had to) win has been a common and frustrating occurrence for the team in recent years, and with parity at perhaps an all-time high in this year’s Eastern Conference, every point banked early on will be critical if the club has playoff aspirations in April.

Thus, take a cautiously optimistic approach to the next set of four games, and a record of 2-2-0 or better will mean the continuation of a strong opening for the boys. In the blink of an eye, we’ll already be at the one-quarter mark of the season by the time the set is through, and General Manager Marc Bergevin will likely have seen a big enough sample size of on-ice product to make an informed call on where this season looks to be headed.

A player to watch in the next few games will be Carey Price, certain to continue receiving the brunt of the work after Peter Budaj‘s less-than-stellar loss (not that the outcome of the game vs. Ottawa should be pinned on him alone). Price has outstanding numbers, tied for the league lead in wins with six and ranking in the top-5 for both goals against average and save percentage. Yet, surprisingly, there has been little chatter surrounding his performances. This is a testament to how well the team has performed as a team; offensively with now three lines that can score, defensively now reinforced with the addition of P.K. Subban – whose role should only increase as he is eased into the system – and in the physicality department with more toughness than Hab fans have seen in years. With the win over Ottawa the only possible exception (and that one controversially due to the waved off equalizer), Price hasn’t had to “steal” any victories in the early season, so the pressure will be on him to perform in an upcoming game when his teammates are having more of an off-night.

But for now, bring on the battle for the Eastern Conference lead.

Three Stars – Second Twelfth

1. Tomas Plekanec

2. Rene Bourque

3. Alex Galchenyuk