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Canadiens blast out of starting gate powered by 5-on-5 defence

You can point to things like the power-play, which has scored 10 goals.

But that's obvious.

Sure, discuss the offensive resurgence of centre Tomas Plekanec, the play of rookies Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, the brilliance of Andrei Markov on the back end.

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Go ahead and marvel at Max Pacioretty's otherworldly powers of recuperation and the offensive balance that results from him being in the lineup.

But if you're trying to explain the Montreal Canadiens' surprising 6-2 start – the 28th-best team in the NHL a year ago has won six of seven since dropping their home opener to Toronto and sits one point out of first in the East – the stats suggest you consider five-on-five defence, a category in which they lead the league.

System-based defence, at its pitiless best, is an exercise in cynicism.

Thwart the other team's creative impulses through close checking, hurry and chase them into neutral-zone turnovers, get the puck out of your own end in three seconds or less – or collapse to the net in the event you don't – and you can compete with a more talented outfit.

It is anti-hockey, and its high priests are Jacques Lemaire, Jacques Marti, and, to some extent, Ken Hitchcock.

Except this year's Habs don't exactly follow the textbook to the letter.

Whereas last year Martin gave the Habs detailed instructions on when to challenge for pucks and when to retreat to centre, this year Michel Therrien wants swarming, all-out attack on the forecheck and in the defensive zone.

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Defencemen are playing slightly higher up the ice, which tends to inhibit the other team's speed in the neutral zone, and the defensive zone coverage is markedly more aggressive.

The theory, simplified: if the other team has two players in the corner, send three. If the other guys have three along the side boards, send four.

"That's where we've changed a lot. We want to play it like a penalty kill style mentality . . . swarm them, out-number them, force them into tough plays. If they're going to beat you when they're outnumbered and make a pass cross-ice to a back-door guy, you're going to have to tip your hat to them," said defenceman Josh Gorges, the NHL leader in blocked shots.

"There's a select few guys who can do that, we want to make it hard to get clean plays."

The Habs are also a lot more accomplished at breaking up the opposition's attempts to cycle the puck in the corner, although Therrien's system puts added pressure on the forwards to help out, particularly on centres.

"We're just a lot more aggressive all over the ice, it's about movement and speed," said centre David Desharnais.

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It's a defensive strategy based on speed, tenacity and high energy, which helps explain why the team has so obviously sought to implement a team-first, pride-in-the-jersey mindset – no effort shall be spared in pursuit of the collective good.

It helps when you have a healthy General Markov to marshal the defence, and a goalie like Carey Price.

The 25-year-old Price has arguably been the league's best goaltender through the first three weeks of the season. Yes, Ottawa's Craig Anderson has the eye-popping stats and the player of the month honours, but Price's goals-against average at even strength this season is 0.81, tops in the NHL.

In seven starts he has only given up four goals while five-on-five, not even Anderson can make that boast. According to more esoteric advanced stats – like goals versus threshold, which tries to assign a value to a player's performance relative to the average player at his position – Price is among the very top players in the league through eight games.

"Carey has matured a lot regarding fitness . . . he came in here in the best shape of his pro career and it shows," Therrien said after Sunday's 2-1 win over Ottawa.

Price was the co-leader in goaltender wins heading into Monday's action, and sat fourth in save percentage.

His save percentage at even strength is .964, just behind Anderson (if you don't include a goal the Habs gave up four-on-four, it's higher).

Price is also facing fewer shots, on average than last year, while on the offensive side, the Habs take roughly the same number of shots per game, but are more accurate.

If Montreal's penalty kill was even close to being as good as last year's elite-level version – it isn't, not by a long shot, in fact it's barely average this year – the defensive numbers would be even more stunning.

Toss out Montreal's 5-1 loss to the Sens last week – in which backup Peter Budaj played goal – and the Habs rival San Jose and Ottawa as the best defensive teams overall.

The Habs, were a top-11 defensive team despite finishing last in the Eastern Conference last season, so how have they become an elite one?

"We're jumping to pucks more, we're not sitting back, if you notice we're trying to spend as little time as possible in our own end, and that's with good pressure and good support," said captain Brian Gionta.

The fact the veteran right winger is healthy again has visibly improved Plekanec's outlook, as has the play of Rene Bourque, whom no one has referred to as enigmatic in at least three weeks (this must be a record of some sort).

The continued progression of defenders like Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz – both have proven to be elite defenders against the other team's top players in statistical terms – has also spurred the Habs' improvement.

Throw in players like the 18-year-old Galchenyuk and 20-year-old Gallagher – both are major upgrades on Louis Leblanc, Aaron Palushaj and Mike Blunden, who played top-nine minutes at various points last season – and a fourth line that features plenty of grit, and you have a situation where Therrien doesn't feel obligated to match lines.

He also has more internal competition and depth: Lars Eller may be the most skilled fourth line centre in the league.

The newfound balance has also provided more offensive punch – the Canadiens are averaging 0.73 more goals per game than they did last season, owing at least in part to contributions from third-liners Galchenyuk (7 points, plus-5) and Gallagher (5 points, plus-6).

The overall offensive picture: even if you remove the Habs' top-10 power-play from the equation, they lead the league in goal ratio at five-on-five (they score 2.14 for every one they give up).

The question is: can it continue? The Habs have matched wits against both good and bad teams to this point, they face a stiffer test Wednesday in the Boston Bruins.

And the schedule is about to get tougher: the Habs play 14 games in 25 days in February.

But according to a pro scout from another NHL team who has seen several Montreal home games, there's no reason to think the Habs are about to drive off a cliff, as former Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke described his team's late collapse last year.

"Well, they've basically been doing it for eight games straight, so they've figured out the system, if they can stay healthy they'll be a real handful to play against," he said.

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