MONTREAL — Don’t look now, but the 13-1-1 Montreal Canadiens, who set a franchise record with their 10th consecutive home win to start a season Saturday, are just starting to play to their potential.
It began against the Los Angeles Kings Thursday, as the Canadiens limited the NHL’s best possession team to 24 shots on goal and just 48 attempts in a 4-1 win at the Bell Centre. That was after six straight games of allowing 38 shots or more.
Then on Saturday, against a Red Wings team playing the second half of a back-to-back, the Canadiens stormed out to a 5-0 lead before two periods were up and limited Detroit to just 15 shots on net at even strength by night’s end.
It was an exhibition of the depth this Montreal team possesses.
“We’ve got four lines that can play hockey,” said Canadiens third-liner Andrew Shaw, who was awarded the game’s first star for his goal and two assists. “We’ve got the potential to be an amazing team.”
It’s hard to argue against that notion when you consider that just eight of Montreal 51 goals on the season have come from perennial leaders Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec and Brendan Gallagher — who eat up a combined $14.25 million in cap space.
The former broke a six-game drought for the team’s fifth goal against Detroit, and the latter hasn’t scored in nine — never mind Plekanec, who only has one.
Was Pacioretty relieved to hear his name called for a goal in this one?
“No,” said the Canadiens captain.
NHL.com’s Arpon Basu persisted: “Not at all?”
“Not at all,” said Pacioretty.
“Do you enjoy that at all?”
Pacioretty smirked and said, “I enjoy winning.”
Pacioretty’s Canadiens lost 44 times last year if you include overtime and the shootout. It’s hard to accuse him of being insincere in his response to Basu. And he must be enjoying the way everyone is contributing to the success the Canadiens have enjoyed thus far.
At the opposite end of the rink, the Canadiens, backstopped by Carey Price (we’ll get to him in a minute), have the stingiest goals-against average in the NHL at 2.00.
About that Philadelphia game: it’s the only one this season in which Price has allowed more than two goals to get by him.
The goaltender’s numbers are something out of a fantasy movie (or a horror film, if you look at it from the opposition’s perspective).
Ten starts for Price? Ten wins — two of them shutouts. And he has .957 a save percentage and an infinitesimal 1.40 goals-against average.
“The way that Carey’s playing gives us a lot of confidence as a team,” said Canadiens coach Michel Therrien.
Price’s play also afforded the Canadiens time to find their better selves — and the opportunity to do so without being under the gun of a losing streak.
It’s a clear sign the team is progressing from game to game when Price, who made more than a few spectacular saves against Detroit, is named the third star after pitching a shutout.
“We’ve been working and concentrating about a lot of details in our game lately,” said Therrien. “As a coach you always appreciate when guys are paying attention to the details and working on things that needed to be worked on to get results.”
Pacioretty sees a team that’s doing a better job of breaking out of its own zone; of supporting the puck; of generating scoring chances off the rush.
And those are his observations regarding the team’s play at even strength.
The Canadiens power play, which has finished in the NHL’s bottom tier and operated at roughly 16 per cent efficiency over the last three seasons, is humming along at over 21.7 per cent — which places them ninth overall in the category.
It’s been bolstered by the strategy new associate coach Kirk Muller has implemented, and it’s been undoubtedly strengthened by the presence of defenceman Shea Weber, who scored against Detroit and leads the Canadiens with five power-play goals.
The penalty kill, which was brilliant against the Red Wings, would be near the top of the league if not for those poor performances against the Blue Jackets and Flyers last week. It’ll take time to get back to 90 per cent efficiency — where it was for the first 10 games of the season — but it’s trending upwards.
“We can be better in every area,” said Pacioretty.
Take him at his word on that one.
The Canadiens are just starting to show what kind of team they can be.