My seven-year-old daughter watched the first period of the game against the Devils last night and she asked me a question I'm sure she didn't mean to be as layered as it really was. She asked, "Is this a new Habs team?" Watching the same period and mentally comparing it to the majority of last season, I could answer only, "Yes, it definitely is."
It's more than a coincidence that every single difference-maker last night wasn't a Canadien last season, or at least wasn't on the roster for the entire year. The first goal, for example, came from a net-crashing Ryan White, who spent months on the sidelines last season recovering from a sports hernia. He's the type of player who'll do anything to win, and putting him on a real fourth line of like-minded players (no more spare defencemen or Georges Laraque types in that role!) gives the Habs an important element they had been missing. As they say, a fourth line won't win you the Cup, but it can certainly support your better players and pin the opposition in their zone while the top guys get a breather. We saw that happen several times last night. There were a couple of whole shifts in which the Devils couldn't break out because of the fourth line's buzzing. That it translated to White's goal was a very welcome bonus.
The second Habs marker was a thing of beauty and a vision of lovely things to come. Brendon Gallagher finished his first NHL goal off a textbook 2-on-1 feed from future star Alex Galchenyuk. The pair of them have some serious chemistry and could conceivably be making magic for a long time. For the first time in recent memory, a young Canadiens player isn't just "promising" or "intriguing." Galchenyuk isn't waiting to grow into his potential. He's already out there putting up NHL points. The ever-smiling Gallagher is his perfect partner and the presence of Brandon Prust gives the kids the room they need to do their thing. It won't be long before they outgrow Prust's ability to keep up with them, but for now, the trio gives the Habs a threatening third line that will hurt opponents' defenders. When you think that a year ago, Prust was in New York, Gallagher in junior and Galchenyuk missing a year with reconstructive knee surgery, it's a small miracle that they've all found their places in the Canadiens lineup.
The overtime winner was vintage General Andrei Markov. If there was any doubt about how seriously the Canadiens missed him for the majority of the last two seasons, it's been erased by the realization that he's now scored the winning goal in every Habs victory this year. He's playing more than 20 high-demand minutes a game, and doing it while making very few errors. Mentally, he's just so much more highly evolved than the average NHL defenceman, he's like a university prof teaching Grade Four. No team can last for long without its elite blueliner, and the Canadiens are a different squad with Markov in the lineup.
Brian Gionta didn't score last night, but he was tirelessly dangerous on every shift. A lot of fans didn't worry too much when Gionta went down for 41 games last season. His small stature and streakiness sometimes lead people to underestimate him. Watching him so far this young season, one is reminded of how much he really brings. He balances the Plekanec line, with finish and a nose for the net. His speed forces mistakes by the opposition. And there's something to be said for having the captain on the ice busting his butt as an example for the team, rather than trying to lead from the therapy room.
While the new and newly-returned guys made the difference last night, the players who lived through last year's debacle of a season had some high points too. Carey Price allowed three goals for the first time this year, but he (and his posts) made some important saves as well. Rene Bourque needs to recalibrate the scope on his stick and start hitting the net instead of firing high, but he had good chances because he was aggressive. He'll get his points if he keeps it up. Erik Cole is coming to life too. He showed signs of the powerhouse who drove to the net to either score or draw a penalty we all learned to love last season.
Watching the good things, it's easy to overlook some of the weaknesses the team still shows, though. Lars Eller has a lot of skill, but he needs to push harder to make his skill work for him. He's got a chance now with Max Pacioretty's absence. Last night he did some good things, but he'll have to show some dominance if he's going to impress Therrien. Yannick Weber looked really rusty and confused, which is forgivable to a degree since it was his first NHL game of the year. If he doesn't turn it around very quickly, he could be on borrowed time in Montreal. David Desharnais has been lost all season. Whether it's because he's getting more attention from defenders or if he's just not up to speed yet, he's been largely a non-factor. Team discipline, particularly in the form of Prust, wasn't what it should be either. It's great to be aggressive, but he's got to learn to dial it back with the hitting from behind. Raphael Diaz, so strong in the first three games, was a little slow in his decision-making last night, which limited his options. Too often, the team looked confused in its own end. Faceoffs, as was the case last year, were generally dreadful.
These, though, are fixable concerns. The season will not be without ups and downs. No season ever is. The team will have to weather missing Pacioretty, and the P.K.Subban situation isn't helping anyone. The convincing message the Canadiens sent last night, however, is that they are a team with a new philosophy to go along with the new faces. So, yes, this is really a new Habs team.