I don't know about you, but I'm really proud of the Habs so far this year. They've been without their best player all season, as well as up to eight of the guys who had regular spots to start the campaign. Tomas Plekanec and Carey Price faced huge questions about whether they'd be able to rebound from bad performances last season. The entire team had to answer the 64-thousand-dollar query: would the Gainey-gutted squad find some kind of cohesion within itself before the competition got too big a head start?
Happily, Plekanec and Price have answered the bell admirably. They're both playing some very strong hockey, particularly Plekanec, who's been the soul of consistency all season. The team also seems to have found the elusive chemistry it was looking for to start the year. Passing is improving, breakouts are getting a little better and the PK has improved substantially since October. Early season underperformers like Maxim Lapierre, Max Pacioretty, Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and Price have come around and look like they're catching on to what Martin wants from them. Newcomers Travis Moen and Jaro Spacek, rookies Tom Pyatt and Ryan White and the resurgent Roman Hamrlik and Glen Metropolit have all done their part to help the team win. Off the ice, everyone seems to be getting along okay, and the personalities Gainey's introduced to the room appear to have the right mix of guts, determination and a strong work ethic.
The doubts about whether the team can play have been put to rest. Now the question is, can the Habs get enough points in the bank to make the playoffs? This month is going to go a long way toward determining if the team we love in December will still be around to be loved in May.
The remaining Canadiens have been holding the fort well in the absence of so many regular players, and most of us have bought into the idea that if they can stay at .500 until Markov comes back, everything will be fine. I'm not so sure about that.
Looking at the numbers, you can see the Habs have 26 points in 26 games to date. In most seasons, an eighth-place team racks up an average of about 94-95 points and is between 8-10 games over .500. If the Habs maintain their current pace, and if Andrei Markov returns in early January as hoped, they will have 45 points in 45 games at that point. That leaves 37 games in which they'll have to make up at least 50 points. If they can remain at .500 until Markov comes back, they'll need to pick it up to about a .677 clip for the remainder of the season. It'd have to be a 25-12-0 record, or any combination of wins/loser points that tallies up to fifty points.
I've no doubt Markov's return will help the Habs, but you have to assume it'll take him a few games to get back into top form after not having played for nearly a year. And we have to remember, Markov is a premier defenceman but he's not God. He will improve the PP, the transition game and, hopefully, goals against, but his teammates will have to be at the tops of their games as well. If any of the major players slump or if the injuries to important team members continue, Markov's return alone won't be enough of a boost to make the team win the sheer number of games it will have to win to get a playoff berth.
So I think this month is really going to be make or break. The points that go in the bank now take some of the pressure off when Markov comes back. It's not going to be easy though. The month features 17 games, including four sets of back-to-back matches...none of which see the opposing team having played the night before..., seven games against division rivals, a shortened Christmas break of only two days, and a seven-game road trip. It's by far the toughest month of the season. If the Habs can come out of this month at something a little better than .500, I like their chances of landing a playoff spot. If, on the other hand, they either stay at .500 or worse, under it, the post-season may just be a wistful dream of what might have been, if only...
In the meantime I'm proud of what the Habs are doing so far. They just need to do it in a way that racks up the points a little bit faster. I'm having fun watching them, but I'm afraid they're going to run out of time. It's going to be a tough December. Let's hope it's a good one.