The Montreal Canadiens reached the Eastern Conference finals two seasons ago, lost in the second round to the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Tampa Bay Lightning last season and this season have announced themselves as more serious than ever about reaching their ultimate goal with a sensational 7-0-0 start.
Here are five reasons the Habs are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
1. The coach
Michel Therrien rarely gets enough credit, so it was refreshing to hear what St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock had to say after Tuesday night's 3-0 loss at the hands of the Canadiens. "This is a well-coached, disciplined, play-the-game-the-right-way team; they're going to be a bear all year for everybody," Hitchcock told reporters. Therrien is now 132-64-23 in his second tour of duty in Montreal, a winning percentage of .655 in the points-based NHL. In other words, pretty darn good.
His critics will say he's too defensive, and a lack of scoring was ultimately the team's downfall last season. But Therrien has also shown as he's matured -- tweaking the way the team plays this season, for example -- that he is able to grow his coaching philosophy.
2. Style of play
I think Therrien has tried to downplay any changes to the system, per se, in part because he was sensitive to being hammered last season for the team's lack of offense. The team is indeed playing differently this season, and perhaps it's because (as the coach said) the roster itself was ready to play the way they wanted to before, but couldn't. To the point, the Canadiens own the puck more and aren't as much of a chip-and-chase team as they were before.
As of Wednesday morning, they were third with a 54.6 percent Corsi For, an area in which they stank last season. You see it on zone entries as the Canadiens hang on to the puck more. When you're adding non-dump-and-chase types Alexander Semin and Tomas Fleischmann in the offseason, it only makes sense that puck retention numbers would go up. The numbers suggest Montreal has more sustainability moving forward.
They're going to lose games and come down to earth, but they're a top-four team in the East once again and with more balance to their game. They're not just depending on their goalie to save the day. Not every single night, anyway.
3. Top-nine production, productive fourth line
The Habs didn't need their massive media corps and passionate fan base to tell them they lost out last spring because of their offensive struggles. The numbers don't lie. They were a bottom-third offensive team all season but got through to the second round on goalie Carey Price's shoulders. So, they changed the approach, going to a top-nine offensive setup with David Desharnais shifting down to center a solid third line, and Alex Galchenyuk moving to center on the second line.
All three units have had an impact so far. So that's a departure from last season, when they were a top-six team with a checking third line. A total bonus is that the fourth line centered by Torrey Mitchell has had an impact as well, using their speed to cycle and forecheck effectively, and even chipping in the odd goal. They've got four lines they depend on, which is not something they could have said a year ago. Now, I know Semin will have his ups and downs, and who knows if Galchenyuk has his struggles at some point in his first year at center, but so far the approach up front is working, and it should have some legs.
4. A mobile blue-line corps
The pucks get in and out of Montreal's zone in a hurry and the transition game has been lights-out thanks to puck-moving D-men such as superstar P.K. Subban, veteran Andrei Markov, Jeff Petry, Nathan Beaulieu and Tom Gilbert. It's the name of the game in today's NHL. The Blackhawks and Kings have five Stanley Cups between them over the past six seasons thanks in large part to high-end, puck-moving defensemen to spearhead things.
It's why general manager Marc Bergevin deserves praise for stealing Petry from the Edmonton Oilers last season and then re-signing him. Petry's been unreal for them. Beaulieu's continued ascent is noticeable. It's crazy that he's on a third pairing. That mobile defense corps also allows for better puck possession numbers and a more sustainable attack.
5. The goalie
You knew I'd get to this guy at some point, right? How did Carey Price pick things up after winning the Hart and Vezina trophies last season? How about going 6-0-0 with a .966 save percentage and 1.00 goals-against average? Holy mama!
At some point, that save percentage will settle back down to around .930 or so, which will therefore bring the Habs back down to earth to some degree. Still, the 28-year-old is showing signs of wanting to push his game even further after a career season, which is a scary proposition indeed for the rest of the NHL. The difference, the Habs hope, is that he's got a better team in front of him this season to really take advantage of it.