Of all the factors that might explain the Montreal Canadiens' surge since the Olympics, here's one that has been all but overlooked: a tactical tweak by coach Jacques Martin.
"Since the break," Martin said this week, "we've had a little different philosophy with our defencemen. We're not matching up any more, we roll all six guys, so we're expecting more offence from that standpoint."
Martin pointed out that the strong play of veteran Josh Gorges and third-year defenceman Ryan O'Byrne, who is now established on the top pair with Andrei Markov, means he can spread the ice time around a little more without fear of having a subpar pair out against the other team's top lines. The theory is to spawn more aggressiveness in the offensive zone from his fresh-legged rearguards.
The result is a more complete game from the back end (Markov has 10 points and is plus-8 this month) and a 7-1 record since March 2 that includes the Habs' longest win streak since the 2005-06 season.
Because of their front-loaded pre-Olympic schedule - they had one of the busiest falls in the NHL - the Habs play only twice this week and have had the luxury of watching the teams around them flail for position. There are even optimistic thoughts of overtaking Ottawa and perhaps catching Buffalo for the division title, although they remain unspoken.
"Once you start thinking ahead, you're done," winger Mathieu Darche said. "We aren't going to do that. One game at a time. It's a cliché, but it's true."
Now thoughts turn to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who will host their historical rivals tomorrow night. The Habs lead the season series 3-1, but all their wins have come in overtime or the shootout.
Though top scorer Tomas Plekanec is nursing an injury and sat out practice yesterday for the second time this week, there is better news concerning top goal-getter Mike Cammalleri, who has missed 15 games with a knee problem.
Though Cammalleri won't be ready for tomorrow night's tilt in Toronto, he is on the cusp of returning.
"It's been a bit frustrating, it's taken a little longer than I would have liked, but it's coming along well," he said.
Cammalleri said he isn't surprised that the team has gone 11-4 without their best 5-on-5 scorer.
"It's a consummate team sport … it's never about one guy," Cammalleri said. "Our game's a lot more consistent, it's taken some time to build up an understanding with each other. It's pretty similar to any other relationship you have at work or in life."
Admitting that the pace of his recent workouts "usually makes me want to vomit," the winger said he hopes to return to a full practice in the coming days, and could even participate in the team's skate today.
Cammalleri was on the ice for roughly an hour after practice ended, skating patterns between cones set up by goalie coach Benoit Groulx - stopping, starting, spinning, taking passes from Groulx and whipping them on net.
Fellow knee injury sufferer Marc-André Bergeron, third on the team with six power-play goals, skated among the defencemen at practice; there is a suggestion he might be inserted into the lineup as a forward because Martin is reluctant to tinker with his defence pairings.
Bergeron's preference is to play on the blueline, but the power-play specialist said he's anxious to get back into the lineup whatever the capacity, and has passed himself fit for tomorrow night's game.
"I feel good," Bergeron said. "It's been a long few weeks, I just really want to get back out there."