Rub your eyes till they’re bloodshot if you like, this isn’t an optical illusion.
Those really are your Montreal Canadiens sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings.
This NHL season has had several teams start well and then fade (San Jose Sharks, New Jersey Devils) and others start strong and take off from there (Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks).
While the doubters wait for the Habs to start regressing, here they are with the league’s third-best record (14-4-4) as the mid-point of the lockout-shortened season nears; even the most congenitally optimistic fan wouldn’t have predicted jousting with conference powerhouses Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins for the top seed.
They’re even getting under the skin of people like Bruins head coach Claude Julien, who grumbled last Sunday about how defenceman P.K. Subban “embarrasses our game.”
“Jealousy,” said Habs forward Max Pacioretty, he of the eight goals in as many games and the NHL’s first star for the week just ended. “We’re at the top, it’s fun right now. I mean, reading comments like that? It’s awesome. If we were in last place they wouldn’t be saying anything about us. We’re in first place, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
The last time Montreal went this many games without losing in regulation – 11 – was in 1993-94, the year following its last Stanley Cup contest.
But is this really a legit first-place team?
The standings say yes, but a hard-headed analysis says not for long.
Make no mistake, the Canadiens are vastly improved from last year’s conference bottom-dwellers. They are an elite defensive team, they can score goals 5-on-5, and they’ve been consistent.
Possession stats – indicators such as Fenwick percentage, which counts shot attempts for and against, minus blocked shots – identify the Canadiens as a top-eight team in the NHL.
It’s not clear this is sustainable.
The Habs are going to be playing most of their games on the road from here on out (they are in a stretch in which they play 11 of 15 away from the Bell Centre).
Notwithstanding the good vibes around the squad, they’ve slid into some inauspicious habits.
In an overtime loss to the New York Islanders last week, the Habs blew a third-period lead for the third time this season. Against the Ottawa Senators a few days later, Montreal lost in a shootout after being unable to finish off numerous scoring opportunities.
Against stronger teams in their last two games, Pittsburgh and Boston, the Habs gave up 34 and 35 shots, respectively (their season average to that point was closer to 25).
They took three of four points, but giving up that many shots and losing almost 60 per cent of your defensive zone faceoffs is not a good game plan against top teams.
The defencemen have showed a vulnerability to speed, and their propensity for penalties (fourth highest in the league) and their pedestrian penalty killing (13th) don’t bode especially well.
Throw in the fact reliable blueliner Raphael Diaz and second-line winger Rene Bourque are out with concussions, and the Habs’ struggles with offensive balance – the line of Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher has scored eight of the team’s last 16 goals – could deepen.
So what is this team?
Almost certainly a playoff club – if the cutoff for the Eastern Conference is in the neighbourhood of 51 to 53 points, even a mediocre run-in of 8-15-3 should get them there.
The Habs have also rediscovered their moxie and a measure of swagger thanks to the efforts of general manager Marc Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien, whose system has the Canadiens skating and pressing their opponents.
This is not a team that is easily cowed.
In last Sunday’s 4-3 win in Boston, as they had in a 5-2 triumph over the Toronto Maple Leafs last week, the Habs took a physical pounding but managed to emerge with a win.
“When the game got emotional we stayed cool, we kept our focus,” Subban told reporters in Uniondale, N.Y., on Monday, where the Habs take on the Islanders on Tuesday. (All he would say about Julien is “that’s game’s over, we got the two points.”)
So while it might be unreasonable to expect the Canadiens to finish the second half the way they’ve burned through the first, this is a team that has a strong sense of what it’s about.
If their rivals are getting their hate on, all the better.
Said Desharnais: “When you win it annoys people and the other teams will say stuff … it shows we’re not fun to play against, and that’s good.”