A first place finish for the Montreal Canadiens has been rather elusive over the past couple of decades, having only performed the feat once in 2007-08 under head coach Guy Carbonneau. On Wednesday evening, the Boston Bruins come into town in what is an early season battle for first place in the NHL Northeast Division. Although a first place finish guarantees nothing once the playoffs begin, it does guarantee a spot in the playoffs.
While the Bruins 6-1-1 start is not much of a surprise, the Habs winning six of their first eight games this season is somewhat of a pleasant surprise to Canadiens fans. The team has managed to capitalize on steady play from goalie Carey Price and solid contributions by committee.
The Habs have benefited from having defenseman Andrei Markov and winger Brian Gionta healthy and contributing full time. Markov appears to have put to rest any concerns about his rehabilitated knee by leading the team in ice time with 25 minutes per game, almost four minutes more per game than fellow defenseman Josh Gorges, who ranks second on the squad.
Probably the biggest surprise of this early season has been the play of rookie forwards, Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, who lead the team in plus-minus ratings. The youngsters’ energetic and enthusiastic play has been a catalyst for a team which seemed to lack drive for most of last season.
Forwards Rene Bourque and David Desharnais, no strangers to criticism, have also been unexpected positive contributors for the Habs this season with their consistent play. Bourque was slammed by critics last season, as his desire was questioned, while Desharnais small size has often been cited as an issue.
Against the Bruins, size will definitely matter for the Canadiens. Newly acquired winger Brandon Prust came over from the New York Rangers during the off-season to add a bit of punch to a unit which in the past has been lacking a physically dominating presence. With 46 penalty minutes in eight games, Prust has matched Dave Schultz’ PIMs per game in 1974-75, when he set the league record of 472 penalty minutes with the Philadelphia Flyers.
For the Habs to step up and show to the rest of the Eastern Conference they are for real, they cannot permit the much despised Bruins to come into town and push them around. Since the two rivals are not exactly the best of friends, the Habs will have to make a statement, and the earlier they do it, the better.
Tonight’s meeting is the first of four games between the clubs this season. Since the two rivals will not play each other late in the season, the winner of this series should hold an inside edge for the division title.
With all the talk of how improved the Canadiens are this season, they will have to step up to the challenge and prove it against their most formidable and certainly most detested opponent of this young season.