MONTREAL -- One of the biggest stories to come out of the Montreal Canadiens in the early part of this shortened season had to do with the way the team celebrated victories, which appeared somewhat comical at the time because this was a team coming off a season where victories were few and far between.
Shortly after restricted free agent P.K. Subban signed a two-year contract with the club on Jan. 28, news emerged that Canadiens coach Michel Therrien had banned the young defenseman's "triple low five" victory celebration with goaltender Carey Price, causing a serious social media backlash from Canadiens fans and around the NHL.
"I always like teams that are humble," Therrien said at the time. "It's a team concept and it starts with that."
Since uttering those words on Feb. 1, the Canadiens have had many victories to celebrate, and they have done so as a team.
It may appear trivial to point out Therrien's stance on a fun little victory celebration, but it is a perfect reflection of what he has preached to his players from the start of the season, that the Canadiens will win and lose as a team.
A third of the way through the season the Canadiens have done a lot more winning than losing, entering a home game Thursday night against the New York Islanders in first place in the Eastern Conference and third overall in the NHL with an 11-4-1 record. It is a stark contrast from the team's last-place finish in the East last season.
Throughout the season, Therrien has stressed those same two words every time he has spoken about his philosophy -- team concept. He is hardly the first coach to ever put an emphasis on playing as a team, but Therrien's version of that ideal has seemingly made believers of his players.
"The players, from day one, have accepted the team concept and the way we're going to play," Therrien said Thursday. "The credit goes to the players. We [coaches] had a plan, but the actors have to act. It's the players who put out the effort and it's the players who accept their roles within the team."
There have been numerous instances where Therrien's team concept -- and the consequences for those who don't follow it -- has been evident for everyone to see.
There was the 6-0 loss at home to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 9 where Therrien left Price in net the entire game. When asked afterward if he ever gave any thought to pulling him, he said he did, but ultimately decided that "we win as a team, and we lose as a team."
There was Lars Eller being scratched for two games after a season-opening 2-1 loss to those same Maple Leafs because Therrien didn't like his intensity. Ryan White sat out seven out of eight games because of selfish penalties that cost the Canadiens wins. Veteran Erik Cole spent close to an entire period on the bench because of lackluster play. Subban suffered the same fate after costly turnovers, and the list could go on even longer.
"It doesn't matter who you are or who you think you are, you're held to a standard that the entire team is held to," Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges said. "If you're not going to buy into it and do what's asked of you in accordance with the team, then you're not going to play. He's shown that and he's delivered that and he's stayed true to it and he's been fair with it."
On the flip side is those who do fall in line with what Therrien is preaching are rewarded. That has been the case for Eller, who has become an important two-way forward the coach trusts in any situation, or White, who was called upon to take a key defensive zone faceoff late in Montreal's 3-1 win against the Rangers in New York on Tuesday.
White won it and that led to the Raphael Diaz empty-net goal that sealed the victory.
"One thing that I asked them when we started the year is to make sure they're good teammates," Therrien said. "If they want to be good teammates, that's part of it, to make sure you respond well and make sure you're accountable to everyone."
The Canadiens' strong start to the season shouldn't come as too much of a surprise considering Therrien's track record in taking over new teams. In his first full season as coach of the Canadiens, after having taken over from Alain Vigneault midway through the 2000-01 season, Therrien led the club to a 17-point improvement in 2001-02.
When he began coaching the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the American Hockey League in 2003-04, they finished with a 34-28-18 record. By the time he left to take over the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005-06, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton had a 21-1-3 record.
Then once in Pittsburgh, Therrien guided them to the end of a miserable season where they finished one point out of last in the NHL with just 58 points. The next season, Therrien helped a young Penguins team featuring Sidney Crosby in his second season and Evgeni Malkin as a rookie to a 47-point improvement, finishing fifth in the conference with 105 points.
A lot of the Canadiens players have noted that whether they like it or not, they always know where they stand with Therrien, and that communication goes a long way to helping them understand what is expected of them as players.
"When I got the message that I was out of the lineup, I was disappointed, I had a lot of anger inside me," Eller said of his early-season scratches. "But he was pretty clear about what he wanted from me."
Gorges said one of the things he has been most impressed with has been Therrien's attention to detail, and how that directly translates into the team concept he loves to emphasize.
"I think he's been really good at explaining not just what your job is in a certain situation, but the result of doing your job. If you do this correctly, this is what will come of it and that's why we want you to do it," Gorges said. "It's all laid out in front of you so you know what your job is, and you know why you're doing it.
"Those little details are so huge, especially the way the NHL is now. Every game is so close, and most are tied or one goal apart in the third period. Those little details will win or lose you the game."
Therrien has also been able to coax some quality play out of his two rookie forwards, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. His ability to work with young players in Pittsburgh and help develop them into the superstars they are today was one of the key reasons new general manager Marc Bergevin decided to hire Therrien, and it is paying off with the performances of Galchenyuk and Gallagher, and even Eller and White.
"It's been easy for me, the coach has given me every opportunity to make the team and succeed and become a better player every day. He's helped me a lot," said Galchenyuk, who turned 19 just last week. "When the coach gives you the opportunity to play in the NHL as a young player, I don't think there's any better confidence builder. The most confidence a young player can receive is getting a chance to play in the NHL."
A big reason why Therrien's message has gotten through to such an extent with his veterans is that they lived through last season's disastrous last-place finish and were eager to receive it, Gorges said.
"Most of the guys were here the previous couple of years and we didn't like the way things were going, didn't like the direction the team was going and the way we were playing," he said. "Part of it was us talking to the coach before the season started and telling him the issues we had and that we wanted corrected as a group. He's a guy that's willing to enforce it, and not just say it. Saying it is one thing, every coach says it, every player says it [and] everyone knows it.
"But you can say it, and then you can actually enforce it, which is totally different. We've learned from a couple of different examples this season, we all know that's the case. When it's put on somebody and it's put on hard, it's not easy for that person, and it's not even easy sometimes for teammates to see it. But you sit there and say to yourself, 'OK, I'm going to do my job, I'd better buy in to what's going on, I'd better believe in the group first. If I do, I'm going to get rewarded.' So talking is one thing, actually doing it is something else."
Therrien has his Canadiens doing a lot this season, but both he and his players are aware there are big tests still to come. On Saturday night, Montreal plays host to the New York Rangers in what will be the team's 12th home game out of the first 18 games of the season. Starting Monday night in Ottawa the Canadiens will play 11 of their next 15 games on the road, so in spite of their lofty perch atop the Eastern Conference, there still remains a lot left for this team to prove.
"We've had a good start to the season and we're happy about that," Therrien said, "but we're also very conscious of the fact that the biggest part of the job is still ahead of us."
If the first 16 games are any indication, the Canadiens will most surely be tackling that job together -- as a team.
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