The Montreal Canadiens.
Yes, those same Montreal Canadiens, who rallied from a 3-1 deficit against our Washington Capitals to win the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal matchup in seven games. The offseason has definitely felt too long and the Caps can thank “Le Bleu-Blanc-et-Rouge” for the early vacation. The saving grace for Caps fans (and Penguins fans as well as the rest of the Eastern Conference)? Playoff hero Jaroslav Halak is no longer tending the crease in Montreal. Yet, the Canadiens are still the same feisty bunch that turned heads last spring in making an improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Stocking Stuffers (notable additions): G Alex Auld (free agency from New York Rangers); C Dustin Boyd (traded from Nashville); C Lars Eller (traded from St. Louis); RW Ian Schultz (traded from St. Louis).
Gift Receipts (notable losses): G Jaroslav Halak (traded to St. Louis); LW Sergei Kostitsyn (traded to Nashville); C Glen Metropolit (Swiss League); C Dominic Moore (free agency to Tampa Bay); RW Georges Laraque (retired); LW Gregory Stewart (free agency to Edmonton); D Marc-Andre Bergeron (free agency); D Paul Mara (free agency).
Ghosts Of Christmas Past: 39-33-10 – Fourth in Northeast Division – Eighth in Eastern Conference
The old saying “Speak softly and carry a big stick” can be taken out of context in the case of last season’s Canadiens. Montreal swayed in and out of the playoff hunt all season. No one really noticed. Considering the big offseason that the Canadiens had the summer before, acquiring quality players like Scott Gomez, Hal Gill and Travis Moen among others, it was surprising that the Canadiens didn’t make any noise until April. Looking at the team as a whole, some reasoning can be made. For example, the Canadiens ranked behind only Washington in power play efficiency at 21.8% and had eight double-digit goal scorers, but were 26th in G/G with 2.56. Halak was ninth among goalies with a 2.40 GAA and fourth with a .924 save percentage, but Montreal still ranked in the middle of the league in GA/G. Montreal flew under the radar for the entire regular season and slipped into the eighth seed, making the playoffs by only one point.
Once the playoffs started, the NHL (and especially the Capitals) learned why Montreal was such a dangerous team. The Canadiens cut the Capitals off at the source: its offense and league-leading 25.1% power play. The Capitals mustered only one power play goal in 33 chances. Halak stopped 131 out of 134 shots in Games Five, Six and Seven. The Canadiens’ defense clogged up the neutral zone, another trap that Washington couldn’t break through. When it was all over, the Canadiens became the ninth eighth seed to defeat the top seed since 1994 and the first to come back from a 3-1 deficit.
Halak worked his magic again in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against defending champion Pittsburgh, who felt the Canadien’s wrath and ultimately fell in seven games. The Philadelphia Flyers, however, weren’t having any of it and steamrolled the Canadiens in five games.
Wish List (season outlook): The Canadiens’ 2010 offseason was much quieter except for the shocking deal that sent Halak to the St. Louis Blues for two prospects. Striking while Halak’s market worth was hot, Montreal picked up two highly-regarded talents in Schultz and Eller. The latter has a better chance of making the main roster this season because of Montreal’s lack of depth at center.
Halak’s presence will be sorely missed, but his departure means that Carey Price is the number one goalie once again. Competition with Halak should have driven Price to play better, but he struggled with only 13 wins and a 2.77 GAA. Now that journeyman Auld fills the backup role and probably won’t usurp Price, it will be interesting to see how Price responds when his job security is slightly more intact. An aloof Price will spell disaster for Montreal.
Injuries (which seemed to plague a lot more teams this year) definitely hit the Canadiens. Brian Gionta and Mike Cammaleri missed a total of 38 games last season. Those two, either alongside Gomez or leading scorer Tomas Plekanec, would have made for a dangerous scoring line. Regardless, Gionta led the Canadiens with 28 goals, while Cammaleri had 19 playoff points, the most for any player that didn’t participate in the Stanley Cup Finals. Montreal’s health will be a big issue; if they can avoid them, a Northeast Division championship is not out of reach.