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Montreal Canadiens' Francis Bouillon, centre, Tomas Plekanec, left, and P.K.Subban celebrate Bouillon's goal against the Florida Panthers during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Sunrise, Florida March 10, 2013. (RHONA WISE/REUTERS)
Montreal Canadiens' Francis Bouillon, centre, Tomas Plekanec, left, and P.K.Subban celebrate Bouillon's goal against the Florida Panthers during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Sunrise, Florida March 10, 2013. (RHONA WISE/REUTERS)

Subban leading the way for Habs’ high-scoring blueline Add to ...

Don't look now, but Mr. Everyone-in-the-room-hates-him is tied for third among NHL defencemen with 18 points in 20 games, and is averaging north of 26 minutes per game over the past week.

Funny how all those experts have stopped talking about how P.K. Subban is a disruptive influence, isn't it?

The Montreal Canadiens lead the NHL in goals by defencemen - the d-men have 17, 18 if you count Frankie Bouillon's snipe into his own net on Sunday - and a big reason for that is the play of a certain 23-year-old.

Subban is tied for the league lead in goals by blue-liners (6) and has 10 points in his last seven games - he's taken over the injured Raphael Diaz's minutes five-on-five and on the power play, and is now playing on the first unit penalty kill with Josh Gorges.

But wait, there's more.

Alexei Emelin, hitting machine, is also now a points machine - seven of this 10 points on the season have come in his last seven games. Andrei Markov, his partner, has seven points in his last eight games after a lengthy points drought. Even Josh Gorges and Bouillon have gotten into the act of late.

So if you're wondering how the Habs have managed to keep from regressing too badly - despite a couple of bad losses in the early part of last week - look no further than points from the blueline.

The stat is actually a clue more than it is an answer in and of itself; if the d-men are scoring it's because the forwards have the puck.

A lot.

The Habs are fifth in the league in takeaways, and in their recent stretch of road games - seven of their last eight have been in other rinks, where the opposition has had the luxury of dictating match-ups - the Habs have increased their possession numbers in tight games according to measures like Fenwick percentage (all shots and attempts for and against, minus blocked shots).

That, despite some iffy work in the faceoff circle and several poor second period performances (are they having trouble with the long change or something?).

A lot of that has to do with offensive balance, the Canadiens have 12 players with 10 points or more, and that's tops in the league.

You want to take away the top line of Pacioretty/Desharnais/Gallagher? Okay, they'll get you with Ryder/Plekanec/Gionta, or with Galchenyuk/Eller/Prust (Dumont).

Ryder, in particular, appears to have figured out how to play Michel Therrien's system (mostly) and led the team in points on the road trip. Gionta has scored six times in his last seven games. Even though Pacioretty has cooled off a little (this was predictable, he's a big-time scorer, but he isn't Stamkos), Montreal is keeping the machine ticking over and his linemates just keep on scoring.

Add in the fact that the Habs' team defence shows only intermittent signs of regressing to the mean - take away the 13 goals Carey Price allowed in a pair of poor outings against Pittsburgh and the Islanders and the Habs have allowed 1.53 goals per game in the 13 other tilts since Feb. 12 - and you have a team that is among the conference's elite.

They have a defenceman scoring at a Norris-level clip, a pair of above-average two-way centres (Plekanec is elite in that category), a plethora of determined wingers who can score, a solid back end with puck-movers on each pairing, and an all-star calibre goalie.

How can this be, given last year's 15th place finish in the conference? And are the Habs really this good?

Maybe not quite this good, but by now no one can say it's a fluke.

The Habs are coming off their longest road swing of the season having collected 9 of a possible 12 points, and close out their busiest stretch of the season - 15 games in 27 days - on an 11-1-3 run.

I wrote before that stretch began that this would be the period of the season that would determine whether the Habs will make the playoffs.

The models at sportsclubstats.com now give them a 99.9 per cent chance of that happening.

The Habs only play two games in the next eight days, which should give a chance to injury victims Brandon Prust, Rene Bourque and Diaz to get closer to playing - not that the club has been badly hobbled by their absence.

With an 11-point bulge over ninth-place Winnipeg, the Habs likely only need to win seven of their remaining 22 games to qualify for the postseason. It's a decent bet they'll win more than that, even if their schedule is road-heavy. And even if their reign atop the conference will surely be interrupted once Boston makes up four games in hand, there's a good chance they'll be fighting for a home seed.

 

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