It's funny to hear people talking about how the Canadiens are the "new Devils" these days. The backhanded compliment comes from people frustrated by watching a team that effectively boxes out opposing forwards to protect its goalie, and which bottles up the neutral zone to force turnovers. The Canadiens, like the Devils used to do, patiently defend and then jump on the offensive opportunities when they come. The funny thing is, the Devils (when they were good) were just the old Canadiens with less talent. Scotty Bowman's teams were always built with a defence-first mentality. Take care of your own end, he reasoned, and the talent up front would do the rest.
Whatever comparisons you make, though, what critics are saying is that the Canadiens are good. The sign of a good team is that it finds a way to win, even when it's not playing its best game. It shows discipline when a team pulls up its socks part way through a poor showing and re-establishes its game plan. That's what the Canadiens were able to do last night. They started out with a decent effort, but really looked awful in the second period. What should have been nine minutes of PP time in which to bury the Sens, instead showed a disorganized, uncommitted Habs team that allowed Ottawa to think they could take over the game. They, as Murray Wilson is so fond of saying, spent a lot of time "reaching;" poking at the puck with their sticks instead of going after it with their bodies.
One of the surest measures of a team's performance is simply to look at which colour shirt gets to loose pucks first. Throughout most of the second, even on the Habs' PP, the Sens jumped on every loose puck. Going into the third tied, it was anybody's game, but Ottawa had the momentum. That's where the whole "good team" factor comes in.
Instead of continuing the headless chicken routine, the Habs came out in the third moving their feet. Suddenly, red sweaters were getting to the puck first and the odd-man rushes caused by the Habs' speed became an issue for the Sens. That in-game readjustment is what good teams do. Once that happened, chances started to come and Gionta's and Hamrlik's goals were the products of that.
Every good team needs a good goalie. Carey Price, once again, came within a few seconds of a shutout. The man is playing phenomenal hockey, and gives his team the time it needs to regroup after a rough period. With him in net, the Canadiens can win every night. His success, though, raises the workload question.
The Habs have been succeeding without Andrei Markov and with P.K.Subban in the press box. They had a strong, bounce-back third period with Scott Gomez missing. A lot of the credit for that goes to Price's strong play. The other major factor in the stability the Habs are enjoying right now is the performance of the defence corps. The reliability of Roman Hamrlik and Jaro Spacek, as well as Gill and Gorges, means the rookies and Picard don't have to play too many minutes. The downside is the vets are playing a lot.
The same thing happened last season when Markov went down early in the year. Hamrlik and Spacek played huge minutes against the opposition's top lines, and Hamrlik put up some points in what looked like a flashback to ten years ago. Unfortunately, by the time the playoffs rolled around, Hamrlik was burnt out and played some terrible hockey. It's imperative for the Canadiens to protect those guys. If they or Price were to get hurt, it would be a lot to expect the rest of the team to cover for them long term. Depth can only go so far, even for a good team.
To that end, even though we know those three guys give the Habs a chance to win every night, the coaching staff will have to think about spelling them more often. Price is on pace to play 75 games right now. That might be okay at his age, in terms of durability, but we don't know how he'll hold up when April rolls around. Alex Auld isn't Price, but he's a decent enough backup. Martin should use him more often. Ditto for Spacek and Hamrlik; even Gill and Gorges. If they can get a break here and there, or even, as the old Habs and Devils used to do when they were set in a good playoff position, a little holiday toward the end of the season, the team's depth should be enough to get the job done short term.
Winning games like last night's is proof the Canadiens are a good team. Now, as any good team does, management should start planning for how to best preserve its hardest-working elements. It's what the Devils, and the Habs on whome they based their success, would do.