The 2014-15 Montreal Canadiens finished with 110 points — good for the second-best record in all of hockey. And they might actually be better this season. It’s a scary thought when you think about it.
Montreal is a perfect 8-0-0. To put that in perspective, they had never even begun a season with five straight wins before. Ever. In all their years as the most storied franchise in the history of hockey, this is their best record out of the gate. And there’s no real reason to think they can’t sustain it.
Obviously, no team is going 82-0. But if the ultimate goal is the Stanley Cup (and it is), this just might be the most dangerous group in hockey. And, oddly enough, they weren’t necessarily viewed that way over the summer.
Most pundits predicted some variation of a Cup Final involving the Rangers, Lightning or even the Capitals coming out of the East. And it’s not as if any of those teams have disappointed in the early going, it’s just that the Canadiens have been that impressive. Of their first eight wins, only one was by fewer than two goals. And five were over highly-regarded teams that made the playoffs a year ago.
As usual, it all starts in net. That’s the case for most successful clubs, but Montreal takes it to a whole new level with Carey Price. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner also took home the Jennings Trophy last year… and the Ted Lindsay Award… and the Hart Trophy. No goalie had ever swept all four of those honors before, but his 44 wins, nine shutouts, 1.96 goals against average and .933 save percentage actually made the voting pretty easy.
Can the Habs count on Price replicating those numbers? Probably not, considering they were downright insane. But they can certainly count on him being among the top two or three goalies in the world — if not the best overall — again. And it’s probably worth noting that his stats through the first eight games actually project out to even better than last season. How do 70 wins, 23 shutouts, a 1.00 GAA and a .966 save percentage sound?
Granted, he can’t keep this up through a full season. But you get the point. He doesn’t seem to be suffering any drop-off after the monster campaign he turned in a year ago. And with Price serving as the backstop, the Canadiens are instantly in position to win every game and playoff series they’re involved in. That’s the first key to success when you’re offense is mediocre (or is it? More on that later). And it’s definitely the most important piece when trying to solve the playoff puzzle.
To that end, this is a lineup that is built for the postseason in many ways. On top of elite goaltending, they have Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban — the sort of playmakers that can swing a series in May or June. And they’ve been there before. Two years ago, they went to the Eastern Conference Final (with Price getting injured along the way). Last season, they fell in the second round to the red-hot Lightning. Don’t expect them to be surprised by anything that comes their way this April.
Which takes us back to the offense. Everything that’s been noted up to this point would be enough to make this a club to keep a very close eye on — even without an abundance of scoring. Thing is, they’re lighting the lamp quite a bit this year. The are averaging 3.75 goals per game (third in the NHL). Last year, they ranked 20th, with 2.61 goals per game. The year before, they were 21st (2.55).
If anything, they’re trending in the right direction in that department. And it’s not really that hard to figure out why. Pacioretty is one of the most underrated snipers in the game, with six goals already in 2015-16 — on top of the 76 he posted over the last two campaigns. It starts with him, but it doesn’t end there.
Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher are young talents that are evolving into bonafide weapons up front now. And while Tomas Plekanec probably can’t keep up his current pace (five goals in eight games), he is an established vet who routinely lands in the 20-30 goal range.
Mix in one of the league’s better blue lines, anchored by Subban, and this is suddenly looking like an extremely well-rounded team. Especially considering the defense got better with the addition of Jeff Petry, who came over from the Oilers at last year’s trade deadline.
It’s still early, and they have plenty of legitimate, elite-level competition to deal with along the way. But the 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens are beginning to look like the best shot Canada has had at a Stanley Cup in quite some time.