Two months ago we checked in on the Montreal Canadiens during a miserable start and looked at whether it was time for fans to panic. Any losing streak in Montreal is usually a time for fans to panic, but it was still worth examining what was going on with the team.
Even though the early results were poor (they ended up losing seven of their first eight games), there was enough evidence to suggest the process was sound and that things might eventually turn around for them.
Entering play on Monday, things have turned around in a huge way.
After their systematic dismantling of the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night, the Canadiens have won five games in a row and are 12-6-2 (a 106-point pace over 82 games) in their past 20. They are back into a playoff position in the Atlantic Division and things seem to be going their way.
Are things back on track, or is this just a random hot streak in the middle of a long season while some major flaws still linger?
Could it be a little bit of both? It might be.
The good news for the Canadiens, though, is that it is mostly encouraging.
Let’s start with how the team is actually playing: well.
Since the aforementioned 20-game stretch started on Oct. 23, the Canadiens’ offense has been rolling along as one of the best in the NHL.
In their past 20 games they are averaging more than 3.2 goals per game. Their 65 total goals are the third most in the league during that stretch, while their 665 shots on goal are tied for the second (with the Pittsburgh Penguins). They are also still in the top half of the league in terms of their shot attempt share. The Habs are a better than 51 percent possession team and are still controlling the pace of the game.
There is probably an element of puck luck to that goal-scoring success (they have a 9.7 shooting percentage during this stretch), but after the way they started the season in their first eight games they were probably overdue for some bounces to go their way.
The fact that they are still a strong possession team and are generating as many shots as they are (more than 33 per game over the past 20 games) is a good sign that the offense will be able to maintain a lot of that success — maybe not to the degree we have seen recently, but certainly a lot of it.
Even more encouraging is the fact that it is happening while their best player — Max Pacioretty — is still trying to get going this season. He has just one goal in his past 10 games despite averaging more than three shots on goal per game. Along with Pacioretty, there is still another level that Jonathan Drouin and Alex Galchenyuk can reach offensively. There is every reason to believe that all three of them will.
The most encouraging development of all for the Canadiens is the return of a healthy Carey Price.
When Price is healthy and in the lineup he can be one of the most impactful players in the league. He is one of the few goalies who can single-handedly change the fortunes of his team. Over the past three or four years the difference between a good Canadien team and a bad one has been whether Price is healthy.
He was not 100 percent for much of the first part of the season and ended up missing nearly a month of action. Since returning to the lineup he has been on top of his game, a brick wall in net.
He has started all five games during the Canadiens’ current winning streak and allowed just six goals. He has allowed more than one goal in just one of the games and has a save percentage of .961. Price returning to a Vezina level in net, combined with an offense that is clicking the way the Canadiens’ is right now, could be quite the combination.
If there is still a concern in Montreal, it still might be the fact it still does not quite know what to do with Galchenyuk, while the defense that general manager Marc Bergevin has constructed still leaves a little to be desired. It is an older group (the five highest-paid defensemen are all age 29 or older) and does not have a ton of puck-moving or offensive ability outside of Shea Weber. That could at some point prove to be a problem.
The beauty of elite goaltenders, however, is they can often mask those flaws and cover them. Right now Price looks like he is starting to get back to being that type of player while the offense has been better and more dangerous than expected.
Are the Canadiens one of the elite teams and a top Stanley Cup contender? That remains to be seen. They are certainly better than their awful start to the season made them look.
They always were.
Now the results are there to show it.