MONTREAL, Que. — Spend an hour with some of the Montreal Canadiens and you’ll hear the same buzzwords emanating from all of them.
Last year, explaining a win for Montreal boiled down to crediting goaltender Carey Price’s superhuman ability.
This year, words like “consistency, balance, chemistry, depth, maturity, fun” continue to be cited by Canadiens players and their coach, Michel Therrien, to explain how the team has managed a franchise-best 6-0 start to the season.
On the same day Price was named the NHL’s first star of the week following wins over Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings, his name was barely whispered to the crowd of reporters looking for reasons the Canadiens have flown out of the gates.
It would be logical to assume a systems overhaul has brought the team from the bottom one-third in possession last year to third-best in the league this year. The zone-exit and zone-entry tactics can’t possibly be the same.
“I don’t want people thinking that we’re in the process of changing everything,” said Therrien after the Canadiens practiced Monday. “The way we play, the style of play in place, I would tell you it’s 95 per cent the same. There are different ingredients that have been added to the core of our team and there’s a maturity for some of our young players — all of it together is giving us what we’re experiencing right now. Don’t make the mistake of thinking we’ve changed everything.”
Tactically, Therrien has tweaked things to have the players on the ice play as a unit of five in all three zones.
The engagement of the team’s defencemen in the offensive zone has been much more evident this season, but the coach insists that and other improvements are merely a function of better execution of a plan that’s long been in place.
But your eyes are not deceiving you, things have been markedly different.
Staples of last season — the bang-it-off-the-glass breakout and the needless dumping of the puck into the corners of the offensive zone — have become measures of last resort. The propensity to fall into a defensive shell when leading has also been archived, now replaced by a dogged aggression that’s seen the Canadiens outscore their opposition 10-1 in the third period.
“The support is better,” said defenceman P.K. Subban. “When you have support and you’re confident that the guy is going to be there to pick up the puck or the guy is going to be there for that little bump pass, it goes a long way.
“I notice that when we’re icing the puck a lot is when we’re not all on the same page. Sometimes that’s not about the coaching; I think that’s more just the guys on the ice making sure that they’re doing the right things.”
And if the Canadiens are doing things right, Therrien says it’s because they have reached the next stage of a process undertaken upon his arrival in 2012.
The team’s nucleus of Price, Subban, Andrei Markov, Alexei Emelin, Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, Lars Eller and David Desharnais has been intact since Therrien took over. They’ve grown together, adopted leadership roles, and they’ve become hyperaware of what their demanding coach expects of them.
Those players have spread the gospel to the others who now complete their team. As a result, everyone is implicated; 15 of 18 skaters have recorded points and the ice-time has been just about evenly shared at five-on-five.
Accountability is also widespread.
“When they’re not doing things the right way, they know,” said Therrien. “It’s a great sign for a coach when you have your team where you want it to be. They understand how we play and you can tell on the bench when some players aren’t doing the right thing. It’s going to be up to me sometimes and it’s going to be up to the players sometimes to correct that.”
The team’s mentality is another factor in its success.
While everyone around the Canadiens gushes about their six-game winning streak, they insist on taking things one game at a time.
They’re openly cognizant of how quickly things can change, of how bounces must continue to go their way, and of how straying from their system will invite old habits they don’t wish to see re-emerge.
“We’re hungry to improve every time we come to the rink,” Gallagher said. “Guys are not only satisfied with their roles, but I think they’re doing more and exceeding and pushing guys.”
It’s not cockiness that has Gallagher proclaim the Canadiens are “just a really good team.” He and the others say with conviction that they have established a new standard of play.
The players, the coaching staff, the talking heads and the fans have all cautioned not to read too deeply into a six-game sample. They will lose eventually, and lose royally at one point or another.
But it’s becoming harder to deny Montreal’s legitimacy as a Stanley Cup contender, and they’ve clearly pinned down the reasons for why that is.