Sometimes, a win is in the bag as the last note of the national anthems dies away. It's like watching a horse pull away down the stretch and you know nothing's going to catch it. Sometimes, though, it's like steeplechase, with mud pits and obstacles all through the race. Last night was the latter kind of win. The important thing for the Canadiens, though, is when they arrived at the finish line, they were ahead by a nose.
This is not the same team we watched last tank last season. Not entirely, anyway. There are still some old habits present, like blown leads and drops in intensity that can last an entire period. Last year, the leads were blown in the third period as the energy level seemed to flag every night. This year, it seems the second is the let-down period after a strong first and a rallying third. Inconsistent special teams are still there too, only last year, the penalty kill was brilliant and the power play anemic. This season, Andrei Markov, Tomas Plekanec and Raphael Diaz have transformed the PP with their precision puck-moving, while the PK has fans crossing their fingers hoping for the best.
The difference we're seeing is partly in attitude, and partly because of noticeable changes in strategy. The attitude says, "Okay, we're taking bad penalties, but we're hanging in there because we believe we can win." The strategy involves using the speed they have to advance, rather than hang back waiting for mistakes. The defencemen don't waste time looking for the perfect outlet. They move the puck ahead, rather than across the ice, and the forwards are in motion to receive it, not stationary at the blueline. They're carrying the puck with speed and short passes, rather than dumping and chasing it as the go-to play. They're showing what "active stick" is supposed to mean, meeting the opponent head-on, feet and sticks always in motion. That's forcing turnovers and keeping the other team on the defensive for long stretches. Carey Price, who would once have lost focus after a softie or two, is proving he can mentally regroup and raise his level of play when it's required.
As long as the Canadiens keep doing those things right, they can compete against any team. When they stop moving and start retreating, that's when big, talented teams like the Jets (and Bruins, Rangers, Senators, Blackhawks, Blues...) can push back. For the most part, though, the Canadiens are sticking to the plan, and it's working for them. Credit for that must go not only to the players, but to the coaching staff. Michel Therrien has tailored a system to suit the team he's got and he has everyone buying in. Even the comments from the players about P.K.Subban's return to the lineup are uniform in their consistency, which indicates leadership at the top is setting the agenda.
What we're seeing is a businesslike approach to the game plan from a group of players who don't want to experience a year as dreadful as the last one ever again. As a result, the wins are coming and the team feeling is building. Watching the two rookies, Gallagher and Galchenyuk, blossom in this environment is more exciting than anything we've seen from this team since the 2010 playoffs. The difference is, this feels like a real step toward building a strong, competitive team, rather than an ephemeral, miraculous playoff bubble that can be burst by the first physically aggressive team it encounters.
Now, if the refs would stop calling diving on clear boarding infractions, the Canadiens would only have to worry about the opponent. A steeplechase is tough enough without running against zebras. In any case, five games in, admittedly a small sample size, the Habs are showing they have the horses to be respectable every night. Sometimes they'll pull away and sometimes they'll grind out a close one. Some nights, they'll be the team left in the dust. The least they'll do is run their best race.