Canadiens fans have been burned before this season so they’re naturally reluctant to get overly excited about a four game winning streak, but it is what it is – eight of a possible eight points and that can’t be ignored.
It’s not so much the winning streak, but the way the team has played over the week. The Canadiens, with pretty much the same roster, have taken on a markedly different persona.
Some of the things that have keyed the surge –
1 – Randy Cunneyworth – Other than the fact that the Canadiens forechecking game is better, the team is playing much the same as it did when Jacques Martin was behind the bench. More than that, Cunneyworth has set up an roster alignment that works, particularly in the offensive zone. In the two months since taking over the team, he has been preaching responsiblity, chipping the puck deep, support and playing the ‘right way’. Sounds like preaching to the choir, but the congregation seemed to have tuned out on Jacques Martin whereas they’ve finally started to listen to the Cunneyworth sermon.
2 – Tomas Plekanec. He started the season as the team’s top centre and quickly lost the job to David Desharnais. (I’ve always suspected an undisclosed injury). His defence never flagged but his offense, more often than not, made him look like a third line player. Over the last two weeks, he’s rediscovered his touch and resumed his role as the best three-zone player on the team.
3 – Carey Price. Hard to criticize his season in light of the disorganized way his teammates played in front of him, but there were stretches where one hoped he’d pull a game or two out of the bag singlehandedly. Price has now entered one of those “zones” Four goals against (including two shutouts) and a .967 save percentage in the last four games can qualify as being in the proverbial “zone”.
4 – Rene Bourque – Boy, does his coach love this guy. The last two games Bourque has logged more ice time than any other Canadiens forward. He was double shifted at Long Island and again in Toronto. The knock on Bourque in Calgary was a tendancy to disappear on offense from time to time. Maybe so, but the physical part of his game is consistant and he had four great scoring chances including a goal and a goalpost against Toronto Saturday.
5 – Tomas Kaberle – I know, I know…..he’s soft in his own zone and once in a while there’s one of those brain farts that make you pause. But as an exercise, watch his passing, especially in his own zone and on the power play. There is nobody on the Canadiens better at executing a tape-to-tape pass than Kaberle, which wasn’t one of Jaroslav Spacek’s strengths. Kaberle has played 411 total shifts with the Habs in his 25 games. He is charged with only 14 giveaways, fewest on the team. And the Canadiens have scored three power play goals their last nine opportunities. Kaberle was on-ice for two of them. Cunneyworth is using him perfectly.
6 – Mathieu Darche – It may be the company he’s keeping. For most of the season he was a fourth line winger with, beyond checking, little opportunity to have cause and effect on the outcome of a game. After a month of experimentation, Cunneyworth moved him up to the Plekanec line where the chemistry has been remarkable. And with Moen or Bourque on the left side, the Plekanec line has become an offensive and physical force.
7 – P.K. Subban – No more the 26-minute-man. Cnneyworth has shifted the often negative focus away from one of his best young players by reducing his ice time by about six minutes a game. And with the reduction, Subban has become a much more authoritative figure. What has impressed me since the all-star break is how aggressive he has become in his own zone, maybe a sign that he wants to be a defenseman first and wait a year or two before attempting to become Bobby Orr’s second coming. Gorges and Subban are a true shutdown pair.
8. Lars Eller – The Canadiens entered the season with two scoring lines and two checking lines in a league where the good teams have three and sometimes four lines that can produce offensively. There aren’t too many fourth line centres who have 12 goals, including a four goal game on his rap sheet. Speed, explosiveness and that old Cunneyworth standbye “responsibility” mark the current state of his game. And those two kids, Leblanc and Palushaj are doing a surprisingly good job beside him.
9 – Scott Gomez – So who would you rather have as one of your four centres, Petteri Nokelainen or Gomez? Forget the paycheck. That’s something the Canadiens will have to address in the off-season. Notice that the domino effect with Gomez in the lineup is no-one on the team is getting less than ten minutes ice time. And, with Kostitsyn at his side, there is a nightly goalscoring threat, especially on those occasions when Kostitsyn has his game going. If the Canadiens miraculously wind up as buyers at the end of the month, finding a leftwinger for that line might be high on Pierre Gauthier’s list.
……The Path to the Deadline – There are fifteen days and eight games between now and the trade deadline. Six of the eight are against teams against whom they’re battling for the final Eastern playoff berths; Carolina and New Jersey at home and Buffalo, Washington, Florida and Tampa Bay on the road. In order to even consider avoiding being a seller on February 27th they will need 12 of the available 16 points.