The Ottawa Senators take a trip down the 417 to face a divisional rival and a tremendous story.
One of the most shocking stories around the entire NHL over the first half of the season for me has been how the Montreal Canadiens have managed to move from 15th and last in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12 to first in the conference through the opening half of 2013.
I, for one, thought the Habs would continue to struggle as they adjusted to a new leadership model and new (again) coach. I had them pegged to finish last in the East, and if not for Columbus, potentially dead last overall.
So, how have they done it? What has changed in the 9 months between the end of the last season and the beginning of this season? From the outside looking in, here are my 5 factors for the turnaround:
1. Andrei Markov – The good health of a formerly dominant Norris Trophy candidate has been the biggest reason for the dramatic turnaround. Held to just 13 games last season, Markov hasn’t missed a game and leads the team in power play points with 15. He also logs more minutes than any other Canadiens player, with over 24 minutes per game.
2. The Power Play – In combination with the #1 factor above, the Habs power play has moved from 28th in 2011-12 to 9th this year, clicking at 20%. Markov is a big factor in this, having points on 18 of the Canadiens’ 24 goals with the man advantage.
3. Coaching – Many scoffed, including myself, when the Habs brough Michel Therrien back for a second tour of duty in Montreal. I guess Marc Bergevin knew what he was doing. Therrien took a team without a ton of turnover and let them loose offensively, scoring at over half a goal per game more than they did last season. Their offense has moved up to 4th in the league (3.19 goals per game) this season from 20th last season (2.52 GPG).
4. Brian Gionta – Gionta might not be the 40 goal scorer he once was, or even a 30 goal man, but the Captain is the heart and soul of the forward lines and his absence for a majority of last season cannot be overlooked.
5. Young Legs – Two additions to the lineup have added a ton of youthful enthusiasm in the form of Brendan Gallagher, who has shown himself to be the next big pest in the league, and the talented Alex Galchenyuk. Both have been eased into duty, have made the adjustment well and have been solid contributors.
There have been other factors, including the leadership and physical presence of Brandon Prust, but the Habs have made the resurgence despite very mediocre stats from Carey Price, whose numbers are pretty steady from last season, coming into Wednesday’s game against the Senators with a GAA of 2.37 and a SP of .910.
The Canadiens will not likely be able to hold off the Bruins for first in the Conference and the Division, but they have built themselves a 7 point cushion over 5th place, and seem to be destined for home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Who would’ve thought that 2 months ago?