Canadiens offer glimpse of full potential in pre-season finale

MONTREAL—It was a pre-season that exhibited the polarity of the Montreal Canadiens.

At one end of the spectrum they bungled their way through the first six games of the schedule, offering sample after sample of their worst selves. They were a team that couldn’t put more than two consecutive passes together; a team that looked utterly confused; a team that scored just nine goals over that period.

But at the other end of it they closed things out with a 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers on Friday and a 9-2 win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, finding cohesion at both ends of the ice and offering a glimpse of their full potential.

It sure makes predicting where the Canadiens will fall in the standings an exercise in futility.

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"We want to stay even keel," said Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty after scoring a goal and adding two assists in Saturday’s game. "We don’t want to get too confident or too down on ourselves."

Somewhere in between fits this group perfectly.

The Canadiens are relying on a pack of defencemen that would never be accused of being among the fastest ones in the NHL. But if they follow coach Claude Julien’s system of moving the puck as quickly as possible, it could very well make up for the speed deficit.

The team doesn’t have a line—at least not on paper—that can compare with what the Dallas Stars are icing in Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov. But they have four that can play effectively in all three zones.

Forward Alex Galchenyuk can be an enigma for 59 minutes of a game, but he can change the complexion of it on his own in a matter of seconds—like he did by scoring a goal and setting up another in 26 seconds in the first period, giving the Canadiens a 3-1 lead over the Senators.

When Jonathan Drouin missed a game earlier in the week with a muscle issue, you wondered what the Canadiens might look like without him. The answer: Not very good.

But in the three games Drouin played, he scored a highlight reel goal and set up four others—including three in Saturday’s game. He was electric on the power play, and he was responsible in his own end.

"I see a player who’s certainly capable of playing centre," said Julien. "He’s a centre that will support the puck everywhere on the ice and in our zone. I think he respects all the aspects of playing centre a lot, and he’s gotten better at the position with every passing moment, in every game, but also in every practice."

You’d have to go back to the days of Vincent Damphousse with the Canadiens to find a centre as versatile as Drouin has proven to be in a very short period of time. It goes without saying the proof will be in his ability to handle the position as the games take on significance, but all signs point to him meeting that challenge.

But if he goes down for an extended period, you have to wonder what will become of the Canadiens’ power play and whether or not any other centreman on the team can pick up the slack in his absence.

There was a moment in Saturday’s game when No. 1 defenceman Shea Weber took a shot off his hand and winced his way back to the Canadiens’ bench. This was after he uncorked a shot on the power play the way no other player in this lineup can, giving the Canadiens a 5-1 lead in the game. It made you wonder what the team might look like without him.

Watching backup Al Montoya get shelled this past Monday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, it reinforced how much the Canadiens will have to depend on starter Carey Price to be at his best on a nightly basis—like he was when he robbed Kyle Turris in the first period of Saturday’s game, or when he stopped Mike Hoffman on a breakaway in the second period.

They didn’t need Price’s best on Saturday. The Senators, without star-defenceman Erik Karlsson and second-line centre Derick Brassard, hardly showed up to play.

But that doesn’t detract from what the Canadiens showed.

"We played fast, we played with pace, we played a north game," said Julien. "I think the intensity of our game was there from start to finish, I thought it was a good 60-minute effort, I felt good about the depth we had up front in our lines and even on the back end. It just seemed to be a good group tonight with a good focus, and again—just playing north-kinda hockey; not trying to be east-west and forcing things. We moved the puck forward and we kept the other team on their heels."

It’s the performance the Canadiens offered in their first game icing a lineup that will resemble the one they’ll dress in Buffalo next Thursday, when they open their season against the Sabres. Consider it a call for optimism. And with close to $8.5 million in cap space available, there’s potential for this team to improve considerably.

But those first two weeks of discombobulated hockey they offered can’t be neglected in the analysis, and as a result caution must rule in any prediction of how they might fare this season.