Now that the dust has settled in Boston and the dulcet tones of Claude Julien's sooky, whiny rant about the Habs diving (although how the coach of a team with Brad Marchand on the roster can talk about that is a mystery) have faded into the distance, it's time to look at this Canadiens team and answer the question, "Are they for real?"
The opening-game loss at home to the leafs had most of us bracing for another lacklustre campaign as we comforted ourselves with the consolation of another top draft pick. Then, something happened. The Canadiens won six of their next seven, outscoring the opposition 25-15. Ah, we said. We've seen this before. A hot start, helped by five of those seven games at home, wasn't enough to convince those of us who suffered through last season that this year marked a real turnaround. No, we said, we'll see how they handle their first losing streak. So, a three-game skid against Boston, Buffalo and the humiliating beat-down against the leafs threatened to prove last year's team was back. Instead, the Habs responded with five straight wins, including two shutouts. Now they find themselves on an 11-game points streak, undefeated in regulation since that Toronto game. Well, we said, they've been healthy all year. Let's see what happens when there are injuries. Three concussions later, to Brendan Gallagher, Rene Bourque and Raphael Diaz, taking a first-line winger, dynamic rookie and arguably the most effective defenceman on the team out of the lineup, the Habs keep finding a way to win.
So, looking at the schedule and a gruelling series of road games, the toughest the Canadiens will face this season, we said this will be the real test. Six games in eight nights, five of them on the road, with two sets of back-to-backs. The first couple of games in that series would no doubt be the toughest, facing the Penguins and Bruins, two of the most stacked teams in the conference, on consecutive nights, with overnight travel thrown in. If the Habs didn't get crushed, we said, perhaps they are honestly turning things around.
Well, the real test has proven a couple of things about this year's Canadiens. Against the Penguins, the Habs defencemen were outclassed by big, aggressive forwards who slipped into the offensive zone with ease. It felt like the Canadiens were hanging on until they went down 4-2. Then they showed why this season is not last year. Despite the deficit, they fought back and tied it up. They grabbed the lead, lost it, tied it and got it to OT for a point they never would have gained last season. It was a crazy game, but even with Carey Price not at his best, the Habs kept coming. Then last night, tired, emotionally wrung out from the Pens game, the Canadiens had to face the Bruins at home, with their bloodthirsty fans in full bay, and first place in the conference at stake. Last year's team would have been deflated by losing their two one-goal leads. It would have gone into the third tired and deflated and given up, with Scott Gomez logging 18 minutes on the night. This year's team digs in and keeps pushing for another goal, it works hard for three periods (most nights) and the players skate with determination.
So, yes, this Canadiens team is for real. The passion, work ethic and one-for-all attitude are real. That said, though, it's just as real to recognize that heart can take a team a long way, but eventually superior skill and size will punish it. The Canadiens D is vulnerable and small, and big opponents like the Pens and Bruins are able to exploit it. A player like Milan Lucic can intimidate and hurt. While it's fair to say the Canadiens are almost there, they need a couple of pieces to be the favourite heading into some of these games, rather than the gutsy underdog.
First of all, Marc Bergevin needs to go to Brandon Prust and (after personally thanking him for letting his body be pummelled every night) ask him who reminds him of himself. Then Bergevin needs to go out and sign that player to replace Colby Armstrong. Alex Galchenyuk, who will be a star for the Habs, needs time to get strong enough to win his battles and show off his skills without getting pushed off the puck. The team needs a strong, steady defenceman (or two) with size in front of Price and Peter Budaj.
In the meantime, we can stop worrying this team will collapse in on itself this year. It's not last season's team because Prust,Gallagher, Price, Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Gorges, Bergevin, Michel Therrien and everyone else who has committed to wearing the Canadiens sweater with pride this year won't let it be like that again. If Prust is willing to fight Lucic, Alexei Emelin is prepared to risk his metal face in a bout with Zdeno Chara and Gallagher is taking on guys fifty pounds heavier than he is, nobody else can justify giving less than they can.
We don't know if the Canadiens can win a playoff series this year, but they are giving us a reason to hope they'll not only get there, but will make their mark. Even if they lose, they'll be fun to watch and they won't quit. That's an identity of which they can be proud. Claude Julien can whine all he wants because that's what defeated Bruins do.