x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Change as good as rest for Canadiens in shortened NHL season

Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien's new look side has put memories of last season's struggles aside with a robust set of performances to return Montreal to the top end of the table.

Montreal Canadiens winger Colby Armstrong is congratulated by teammates after scoring against New Jersey.
Montreal Canadiens winger Colby Armstrong is congratulated by teammates after scoring against New Jersey.

Montreal's proud hockey organization does not expect poor performances, much less a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference, as the Canadiens managed last season. So it wasn't much of a surprise when a new general manager, Marc Bergevin, and a new coach, Michel Therrien, were rounded up.

Still, it was a bit risky, heading into a lockout-shortened season with so many changes, including some key ones on the ice. Scott Gomez, the expensive centre, was bought out of his contract. Two players with reputations for toughness - Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong - were acquired to stiffen the team's backbone.

As it turned out, change was good. The Canadiens, whose 24 championships are the envy of the NHL, are back where they are accustomed - among the leaders, neck-and-neck with Boston and Pittsburgh, at the top of the Eastern standings.

It is if the aberration of 2011/12 never happened.

"It was almost like you weren't playing in Montreal," Max Pacioretty, the team's leading scorer, told Yahoo Sports.

The short training camp to learn Therrien's systems was not a problem, possibly because Therrien and his assistants had used the considerable off-season to study their players and plan extensively, placing them in roles and situations best suited to their skills.

"We knew we had to buy in right away," said the defenseman Josh Gorges.

It's a team built on depth, mostly with finesse players who control the puck and the action. Through their first 27 games, the Canadiens had taken 110 more shots than their opponents, third-best differential in the league.

"We're playing an aggressive style of hockey and controlling the match," Therrien said after a recent victory. "The players have been paying a lot of attention to details."

Also, they no longer are being bullied by the bigger and stronger teams, in particular, by their Northeast Division rival Boston Bruins. The newcomer Prust has been in seven fights.

Designed to press and score, Therrien's team is not particular about who does the scoring. Pacioretty, with eight goals and 14 assists, is not among the league's top 40 points leaders.

Two of the team's top four scorers are defencemen - PK Subban and Andrei Markov.

Controlling the puck has helped the goaltenders, who have faced the fourth-fewest shots in the league. Carey Price is the No 1 goalie. He was a scapegoat last season but is being praised this year, even though his goals against and save percentage numbers are almost identical to last season.

Mostly, the Canadiens have their swagger and their confidence back. "It's hard not to when you're winning," the centre Lars Eller told NHL TV.

Winning makes everything good - or "normal", as it is called in Montreal.

 

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