THE CANADIAN PRESS
MONTREAL — There is a giddy feeling of anticipation among Montreal Canadiens fans this season that goes beyond the team’s 100th anniversary celebrations.
After surprising even themselves by finishing first in the NHL Eastern Conference last season, there is a sense that the team has arrived as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender after more than a decade of mid-level squads that wavered just in or just out of the playoffs.
The off-season addition of veteran forwards Robert Lang, Alex Tanguay and Georges Laraque have heightened the pressure on a team now three lines deep in scorers and with one of the best defence groups in the conference.
"It’s the type of pressure you want," team captain Saku Koivu said. "We created that pressure for ourselves by playing well last year
"If you don’t have success the previous year, no one expects anything from you. We’d rather be in this spot, where teams want to come and challenge us. It’s been the opposite for many years."
The Canadiens used the league’s best power play to go 47-25-10 for 104 points last season, their first 100-point campaign since they had 102 in 1992-93 — the year they won the last of their 24 Stanley Cups.
It ended in a disappointing five-game loss to Philadelphia in the second round of playoffs in which they mostly outplayed the Flyers, but saw Martin Biron outperform Canadiens rookie Carey Price in goal.
The gifted Price, who admits he ran out of fuel at the end of the season, came to camp looking fit after shedding 28 pounds in the summer.
He and backup Jaroslav Halak looked sharp in the pre-season.
And general manager Bob Gainey picked up some insurance by signing veteran Marc Denis, who will start the season in the AHL with Hamilton, where he hopes to rework his game and make it back to the NHL.
The prospect looms of a trade at some point in the season involving the highly regarded but inexperienced Halak, whose path to a starting job looks blocked for many years by Price in Montreal.
Whatever occurs, the Canadiens expect good, if not excellent, goaltending.
On defence, Andrei Markov’s vision and skill and Mike Komisarek’s size and toughness give them one of the best defence pairs in the league.
They are followed by veteran Roman Hamrlik, rangy Ryan O’Byrne, Josh Gorges and Francis Bouillon, with veteran Patrice Brisebois, the last player left from their 1993 Cup team, as the seventh defenceman.
Gorges’ emergence as a consistent performer on the right side was one of the team’s pleasant surprises of 2007-08, while the stocky Bouillon blends skill and a battling approach to the position.
It is on attack that the Canadiens promise to be better, even though, thanks to their power play, they already had enough to lead the NHL with 262 goals scored last season — one more than Ottawa.
Third-year coach Guy Carbonneau plans to keep his top line — centre Tomas Plekanec with wingers Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn — intact at least to start the season.
Kovalev snapped out of a funk to lead the club with 35 goals and 84 points, while the compact Plekanec had 29 goals and Kostitsyn, who finally established himself in the NHL, had 26.
The second line looks like it will have Koivu between Tanguay and speedy Christopher Higgins, which would put Lang as the third-line centre with Sergei Kostitsyn and probably Guillaume Latendresse.
Probably is a loaded word, because late in camp, 19-year-old rookie Max Pacioretty was making a strong bid to crack the NHL lineup and the spot most in danger belonged to Latendresse on the left wing.
The explosive, six-foot-two Pacioretty, drafted 22nd overall in 2007, turned pro this summer after one season with the University of Michigan. Chances are he will be with the Canadiens sometime this season.
But the 21-year-old Latendresse, who had 16 goals in each of his first two NHL seasons, has also looked good after dropping some weight and taking a power skating course in the summer.
The fourth line can have Laraque, Steve Begin, Maxim Lapierre, Tom Kostopoulos or Mathieu Dandenault, with centre Kyle Chipchura knocking on the door.
Dandenault, who can also play on defence, is one of eight Canadiens eligible for free agency next summer. There was speculation his contract would be bought out to make room under the salary cap.
A big addition in every sense was Laraque, the team’s first bona fide heavyweight in years. He will not only save Komisarek and Kostopoulos from wasteful fights, but may save some skill players an extra slash or two from opponents bent on intimidation.
One area in which the Canadiens have transformed in recent seasons is that, while they aren’t huge, they can no longer be dismissed as a small team. There are still smaller players like Koivu, Sergei Kostitsyn, Plekanec and Bouillon, but the additions of Laraque, Lang, Hamrlik, O’Byrne, Latendresse and Lapierre have swelled the numbers of players six-foot-two or more.
"On paper, we got bigger, stronger and faster, but one thing Carbo has always preached is being team tough — bearing down and being tough to play against," said six-foot-four Komisarek. "That comes from being tough physically and mentally."
An area of concern is the right point on the power play, which was ably manned last season by Mark Streit, who turned a 62-point effort into a US$20.5-million, five-year contract with the New York Islanders.
Late into camp, it remained uncertain who would take that spot. Big-shooting rookie Yannick Weber was given a long look and may well end up there at some point.
Kostitsyn filled that role at times last season, while Lang may also get a shot. Lang and Kovalev are former linemates with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Brisebois is a good point man, but isn’t likely to dress for all the games.
Whoever plays there, it is still Markov and Kovalev who run the power play and who are likely to keep it among the league’s best.
Another strength is depth.
Those who lamented the pitiful state of the once-powerful organization were surprised at the number of quality of potential future NHL players in camp that were drafted in recent years by scouting director Trevor Timmins and earlier by Andre Savard.
So it is no surprise that many fans have CH flags on their cars before the season has begun, although it remains to be seen if the leadership is there to handle to expectations.
There will also be the excitement of a winter loaded with 100th anniversary celebrations, including wearing wild-looking jerseys from Canadiens teams from early in the 20th century.
"We welcome that — we accept that challenge," said Komisarek. "In this league, whether you’re picked first or last, you still have to go out and play 82 games.
"Despite what we did last year, none of that will give us success this year. We still have to go out and earn it. Nothing can be taken for granted."