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Analysis

Cup window beginning to open for Habs Add to ...

Amid the evident frustration and melancholy, there was a hint of a metaphorical breeze.

Perhaps it’s because Montreal Canadiens’ window to contend for a Stanley Cup has been cracked a little.

Now it’s up to GM Marc Bergevin to find a few new sticks to prop it open completely.

This is a team with as dynamic a core of young talent as you’re likely to find in the East – the same can be said of the Sens, this is playoff rivalry that will surely bloom in the coming seasons.

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Conventional wisdom now dictates the Habs – and their forwards in particular – were pounded into submission by the bigger, stronger Senators, and that they need to add bulk to compete at playoff time.

“All of a sudden everybody thinks that’s it. I don’t think so. My opinion is we’re a good team, a quick team with speed, and when we use that when we’re playing against Boston … we were down by two goals twice in the third period in their building and came back. They’re tough, and we’re not supposed to be?” said centre Tomas Plekanec.

While it’s true the Sens have more size on the blueline, they also have three regular forwards who are shorter than six feet (the Habs have four).

Taking the broader, longer view, it’s fairly clear Plekanec is right, and what Montreal needs, more than size, is elite goal scoring talent – although rookie Alex Galchenyuk will surely be a big part of the answer to that problem – and more experience and toughness on the blueline.

So while it’s tempting for fans to think Bergevin will be smooth-talking his colleagues in hopes of unearthing some scrappy, XXL-sized forwards this off-season, he’s likely more interested in finding a hard-edged, shut-down defenceman (particularly given knee injury victim Alexei Emelin will likely be unavailable until after Christmas), and a high-scoring winger or two.

It’s readily apparent the Habs won’t re-sign Michael Ryder, an impending free agent who scored only one playoff goal and will surely be looking for a long-term contract, but the money saved on Ryder, along with the $4.25-million (all currency U.S.) they could recoup by buying out Tomas Kaberle, means Bergevin should have north of $10-million in cap space to play with.

“Our team wouldn’t be upset if this team didn’t change one nameplate in this room … the best part about our situation is management has realized that in-the-room is as important as on-the-ice, they went out last summer and got the right guys for the room. I think it’s helped out a lot, we have a lot of confidence they’ll go that direction again,” said Max Pacioretty, who led the team in scoring in the regular season and played his last three playoff games with a separated shoulder.

It’s true that the Habs showed character, but the strength of this team is youth.

Galchenyuk and fellow first-year pro Brendan Gallagher showed over the 48-game schedule and abortive playoff run that they aren’t cowed by the big stage, and both youngsters bring a badly needed boost to the Habs lineup – the former with his world-class skill and shot, the latter with a big man’s game and don’t-know-the-meaning-of-quit attitude that ripples through the team.

“[Gallagher] should be the rookie of the year, it shouldn’t even be a contest the way he competes. … [Galchenyuk] is only 19, it’s scary how good he’s going to be, I’m really excited to be part of this team, this is a team on the upswing,” defenceman P.K. Subban said this weekend as the players packed up their gear.

Subban, it bears mention, has an excitable nature.

But he is another player who has made giant strides, putting up numbers that earned him a nomination for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the league’s top defenceman.

The expectation is he will only improve.

Subban turns 24 on Monday, he is just one part of the 25-and-under nucleus of this team, which includes Gallagher (21), Galchenyuk (19), centre Lars Eller (23), Pacioretty (24), and goalie Carey Price (25).

That’s without considering young defencemen Jarred Tinordi (21), and Nathan Beaulieu (20), 22-year-old forward Danny Kristo, or soon-to-be pros like junior prospects Charles Hudon, Brady Vail, Darren Dietz and Sebastian Collberg.

The playoffs did nothing to quiet the Price doubters, and the big goalie, who suffered a second-degree sprain to his left medial-collateral knee ligament, was candid in saying that the pressure of playing in Montreal occasionally weighs on him, even if he’s learned to accept it.

“That’s one thing I miss, just being anonymous. It’s tough to do that here,” he said.

Just tough, he was asked, or impossible?

“It’s impossible. I don’t even go to the grocery store any more. I hardly do anything any more, I’m like a hobbit in a hole,” he laughed.

At the same time, Price said, he is committed to improving – he theorized a lack of practice time in the compressed schedule may have hindered his work and that of other goalies – and will start training once he is cleared medically.

“I honestly believe I can win a Stanley Cup. I think I have the ability and the mentality to do that. In order to do that, I need to reach another level,” he said. “I’m going to need to figure out what I need to do to get to that level.”

At $6.5-million per season, Price is the Habs’ highest-paid player, and he has five years left on his contract.

The consensus opinion – outside of the haters on Montreal talk radio – is that he is among the NHL’s elite netminders.

Should he find that level of play with any degree of consistency, the Cup window could stay open for a while.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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