The Canadiens, as we're all aware, had a lot of problems last season. They didn't play with a full lineup once the entire year. They were required to be a defensive, conservative team when the size factor was not in their favour. Only one forward line at a time was ever intact or performing well. The fourth line got minimal minutes and often featured a defenceman playing out of position. The defence corps featured two rookies, P.K.Subban, Josh Gorges and the ghost of Andrei Markov. They lost a lot and team spirit was low. They were not fun to watch.
Things are so different so far this season. First and foremost, the lineup is finally intact. Nobody's trying to play too many minutes or cover opponents they shouldn't be facing. The needs the team had last year for a real, gritty fourth line, for a well-balanced defence and for three solid lines able to provide a scoring threat have all been met. Credit goes to Marc Bergevin for seeing the holes in the lineup and filling them with smart, sensible choices.
Francis Bouillon seems so happy to be back home, and his play is reflecting that. He's making some very reliable decisions in his own end, and is surprisingly solid on the second PP unit. His presence gives the third pair an element of toughness and experience young Yannick Weber couldn't bring last season. He's also able to grind it out on the boards and move the puck quickly.
Brandon Prust was a great signing as well. His willingness to fight helps keep most opponents honest, but Prust is more than a fighter. In the Ottawa game this weekend, there was one beautiful sequence in which he kept the puck in the Senators end for nearly an entire shift, giving the top line guys a breather. He gives the two rookies room to work their magic with his crashing around.
The rookies, Galchenyuk and Gallagher have breathed life into the third line. Gallagher's non-stop motor and nose for the net are kind of like a homing pigeon on speed. He puts himself in the right places and the points are coming for him. Galchenyuk is getting a great opportunity to learn the big-league game without the pressure of having to carry the team's offence. So many kids with great expectations have failed because they were rushed and had to do too much too soon. Galchenyuk is in the ideal situation with a fellow rookie on his line so they can develop together. His skills are something special and he's able to take advantage of them by facing third-line opposition, most of which isn't in the "future superstar" category.
Some of the veterans are almost like newcomers too. Rene Bourque is a revelation. He's an entirely different guy this year, and he's making some thrills happen with Tomas Plekanec. Having Brian Gionta and Andrei Markov healthy fills two gaping holes from last year's lineup. Their skills just can't be replaced by Aaron Palushaj and Chris Campoli. Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin are a year better than they were last season.
Perhaps the biggest addition to this year's team, however, is Michel Therrien. Memories of his infamous bench penalty that turned the 2002 playoffs in Carolina's favour made many fans skeptical of his return to Montreal. It turns out, at least in the early going, the fans were wrong.
Therrien has changed a lot of things about how the team approaches the game. When there's a battle on the boards now, he's got one guy in there with two waiting to move the puck. Last year three players would be in the battle, with no passing option if they gained possession. No longer do the forwards park along the blue line and stand still waiting for the outlet pass from the D, which would often either be picked off or end up in a wrestling match with the opposing forechecker. Now the forwards are moving, and they take the defencemen's passes within the zone instead of at the blue line. As a result, clearances are crisp and clean.
Josh Gorges explained the difference in their game this year by revealing the coach doesn't want them to sit back and protect a lead. He wants them to keep pursuing the next goal right up until the final siren. That's the antithesis of what Jacques Martin had them doing. Therrien's got the team ready from the first puck drop. The starts have been fast and aggressive. How many times last year did the Canadiens find themselves out of contention by the first intermission? Nobody on Therrien's team plays fewer than five minutes, and all four lines are used judiciously.
Most importantly, Therrien said when he arrived that the team would work hard, it would practice like it wants to play and it would have better stamina than last year. So far, everyone's buying in. They've got each other's backs and they have yet to demonstrate one of last season's third-period collapses when they ran out of gas. Part of the reason is the team culture Bergevin and Therrien and their new management and coaching teams have instilled. Everything has to be about the team, not the individual, as is witnessed by the banning of the triple-low five celebration. Players should be proud to be Canadiens, a point underlined by the rule against stepping on the logo in the dressing room.
Several players have said now Therrien is a good communicator. He talks to the players and he has not only determined a role for everyone, but he makes sure every player knows what he's supposed to be doing. Players understand their jobs, which makes it easier to perform according to the game plan. Last year, players looked confused and often said they hadn't spoken with the coaches about obvious problems in their games.
Naturally, it's easy to compliment Therrien when things are going well, but it would serve us well to remember that he's doing a lot of good things even when the inevitable slump hits. He has managed to take an underachieving, disheartened bunch of hockey players and turn them into a team again. With help from Bergevin, who seems to understand something about what makes a team tick, Therrien's got the pieces he needs to provide some very entertaining hockey. And, in the end, that's all the fans really wanted from this year. Nobody expects a miracle climb from the basement to the Cup in one season, but no matter what happens, the Canadiens are fun to watch again. A big part of that change is due to the newcomers, and the old guys who are inspired to play like they're new again.
Now, if they can only stay healthy...