MONTREAL — We’re 20 games into the 2018-19 campaign and the Montreal Canadiens own the eighth-best record in the NHL (11-6-3), have the most even-strength goals in the league (49), and they’ve all but erased what was perhaps the ugliest season in their 109-year existence by executing the most exciting brand of hockey they’ve played in well over a decade.
The team that was shutout 12 times last season has managed to score at least three goals in all but five games this season. They were a team that retreated when the going got tough a year ago, but they’ve already collected four wins when trailing after a period and three when trailing after two this year.
Granted, the power play has been a hot mess — it ranks 28th out of 31 teams and has only connected on 10 of 74 opportunities — and the defence has left much to be desired of late.
But no one would have predicted the Canadiens would be sitting comfortably in a playoff position, just four points out of the Atlantic Division lead without Shea Weber at their disposal and without Carey Price on top of his game. Heck, no one would’ve predicted they’d be there with Weber logging close to 30 minutes a game and Price making another bid for the Hart Trophy.
Meanwhile, Weber appears poised to return earlier than expected from off-season knee surgery — the original prognosis had him missing games until mid-December — and Price has been otherworldly in his last two starts.
If Price can come close to maintaining what he showed against Calgary and Vancouver, and Weber finds his legs in a hurry, it can only help the Canadiens keep things on the rails as we approach the halfway mark of the season.
Regardless, they and their fans have to be content with how things have gone through the first quarter.
MOST ENCOURAGING DEVELOPMENT
There’s been a lot of them so far, but none more outstanding than Max Domi’s emergence as a true no. 1 centre.
The points are impressive — Domi’s 24 in 20 games give him the best start a player’s had with the organization since the 1919-20 season — but it’s really remarkable how well he has fared at both ends of the ice after shifting over from the wing, where he played his first 222 games in the league.
Max Domi's 24 points are the most by a #Habs player thru the first 20 games played with the franchise since the 1919-20 season.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) November 18, 2018
When the Canadiens traded former 30-goal scorer Alex Galchenyuk for Domi (who had only scored 36 goals in his career to date) in June, their fans had a meltdown about it.
Well, none of them are complaining about it now. Domi — originally from Winnipeg — is on a nine-game point streak and sitting on 10 goals, which is one more than he produced over 59 games with the Arizona Coyotes last season.
His breakout has turned one of the worst-perceived centre lines in hockey into an unexpected force. It has shifted Phillip Danault into the shutdown role he’s meant to play and allowed 18-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi to grow accustomed to NHL hockey from the third line — where he isn’t burdened to carry the team offensively.
OTHER ENCOURAGING DEVELOPMENTS
The play of Tomas Tatar comes to mind.
He was supposed to be a throw-in for the deal that brought A-prospect Nick Suzuki and a 2019 second-round pick to Montreal from the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for perennial 30-goal scorer Max Pacioretty.
You might have even referred to Tatar as the throw-away with Vegas retaining some of his salary in the trade with Montreal after trading a first, second and third-round pick to get him from the Detroit Red Wings at last year’s deadline.
But Tatar, who has nine goals and eight assists, has been a huge part of Montreal’s success so far.
So has defenceman Jeff Petry, who ranks ninth among NHL defencemen in scoring (15 points).
Petry has averaged 24:23 per game and filled a great deal of the void left by Weber, registering 31 hits and 20 blocked shots. He plays in all situations, against the opposition’s best forwards, and he’s elevated the play of partners Mike Reilly, Jordie Benn and Karl Alzner.
It’s safe to say that without Petry’s contribution, the Canadiens would be in much worse shape.
MOST CONCERNING DEVELOPMENT
The goals against.
We knew defence was going to be a struggle for this team, but goaltending was supposed to be a strength.
Because neither aspect of Montreal’s play has been up to snuff, the team is averaging 3.25 goals against per game.
It’s going to take more than two strong performances for Price to put his shaky start to the season behind him. With a .904 save percentage and a 2.92 goals-against average, there’s plenty of room for growth.
Backup Antti Niemi (.887 and 3.74) needs to pick up his game, too.
And the defence is going to have to tighten up considerably in front of both goaltenders.
MVP OF THE FIRST QUARTER
The obvious answer is Domi, but the honour belongs to head coach Claude Julien.
Allow us to enumerate the reasons for that.
1. He hired Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson, and has leaned on them to help him revamp the team’s strategy to one that better suits the personnel in place.
2. He set the tone on Day 1 of training camp by pushing the Canadiens to establish a work ethic that would allow them to overcome their talent deficiency in relation to their competition.
3. He has run an authentic meritocracy since the season began — scratching veterans Alzner and Tomas Plekanec out of the gate and elevating players deserving of bigger roles.
4. He moved Domi to centre.
5. He kept Kotkaniemi with the team.
6. He has complete buy-in from his players.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR IN THE SECOND QUARTER
How the team navigates a difficult schedule and handles the intense competition that has taken shape in the Atlantic Division.
The Canadiens will play 20 games between now and New Year’s Day. Six of them will be played in back-to-back situations, and eight of them will be against divisional rivals.
They close December on a six-game road trip that starts in Colorado and carries them through Arizona, Las Vegas, Florida and Dallas for games against the Avalanche, Coyotes, Golden Knights, Panthers, Lightning and Stars.
How they fare between now and our next review will reveal much about who they are.