Ten games into the 2010-11 season, and the Canadiens are on top of the NHL standings. They haven't been perfect and they haven't been overpowering on offence, but they've been consistent. They're playing a quick-transition game at high speed. It gives the opposition little time to set up in front of the Habs' goalie, and the forwards are coming back to help the D move the puck out of trouble quickly. Their passing is about a hundred times better than last year. A lot of the time, they're controlling the play and dominating. Considering that they're doing all of this without a power play to speak of, and without their best defenceman, it's impressive.
That's not to say there isn't room for improvement. The Habs are beating the opponents they should beat, which is certainly the sign of a strong team. But except for the Penguins, who play a very similar style of game, they really haven't faced anyone who's a serious threat to contend this season. The Habs have been susceptible to strong, forechecking teams for years now. Watching the second period last night, when the Islanders really started pushing the Canadiens physically, we saw that could be a problem if the Habs don't start pushing back. The Isles did it for one period. The Bruins, Flyers and leafs will do it for three, and the Habs need to find an answer.
Hal Gill is a big problem in this regard. He's huge, but he's soft as sponge cake. Rookie Matt Martin nailed Gill and knocked him down twice last night, then made him look foolish in a fight. Gill's a great leader, the players all seem to like him, and he's a penalty-killing machine. But a big, bottom-pairing defenceman can't let himself be pushed around that easily. Worse, he can't be as physically ineffectual as he is when opponents are crashing the net.
Gill's terrible at clearing the crease, but he's not the only culprit. We saw it on Thursday, when all three Isles' goals were scored because they had guys planted in front of the net and the Canadiens defence couldn't move them. Team toughness and push-back has to come from the back end first, and it doesn't with the Habs.
It's perhaps petty to criticize on a day when the Canadiens are first in the league, but we have to remember last playoffs. The Habs played great defence, pushing the high-scoring Caps and Pens to the perimeter. Then they made the most of their own opportunities to beat some pretty good teams. They fell when they played a team that crashed the net and pushed them around physically. There's real concern that nothing has changed for the Canadiens this year, and that won't be addressed until they play the kind of team that's traditionally owned them.
Concern about the future aside, it's a pretty good day to be a Habs fan. Alex Auld has shown he can come off the bench to offer some really solid goaltending when needed. Benoit Pouliot is working hard and got rewarded with a nice goal on a big-league shot. Tomas Plekanec continues to awe and amaze. P.K.Subban is proving he's going to be an NHL star. Jeff Halpern is doing the job the team is paying him peanuts to do, and then some. Brian Gionta is working and shooting and will start cashing before too long. Josh Gorges remains a rock on the blueline.
Looking ahead, the next week offers a real chance to build on this solid start. None of the Panthers, Jackets, Sabres or Sens are better teams than the Canadiens, and all four games are possible wins. The Habs just have to play the game they've been playing, and with the return of Andrei Markov tonight, they should be able to do that a little more easily. It's not until the following week, when they play the Canucks, Bruins and Flyers that we'll get a real picture of what this team is made of. If they're still on top of the league then, we'll really have something to celebrate.