The Montreal Canadiens lost for the fourth time in five games March 12, then watched the Toronto Maple Leafs win the following night (against the Los Angeles Kings, no less) to push three points in front of their rivals from Quebec for second place in the Atlantic Division.
What came next was remarkable: Montreal gained 16 points on Toronto in 16 days, leaving the Maple Leafs in its wake. The Canadiens won eight of nine in that stretch to effectively secure a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while the Maple Leafs lost eight in a row in one of the craziest and swiftest collapses in recent NHL history.
The Canadiens finished the season on a strong note, upsetting the archrival Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Second Round before a Carey Price injury left Montreal short against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final. Montreal lost high-profile NHL Trade Deadline addition Thomas Vanek to free agency, but added Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau in a deft trade and friend of the analytics community Tom Gilbert to possibly help shore up that department on the blue line.
None of the teams in the Atlantic that finished below Montreal look decisively better on paper heading into this season. The Canadiens could be locked in a battle with the Tampa Bay Lightning for home-ice advantage in the playoffs behind the Bruins all season, and it isn't implausible that one of those teams could sneak past Boston for the division title.
Here's a look at the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Canadiens:
The Canadiens lost Vanek, Daniel Briere and Brian Gionta up front, while adding Parenteau, Manny Malhotra and Jiri Sekac, 22, from the Kontinential Hockey League. Where Parenteau fits will be a big topic during training camp.
Alex Galchenyuk figures to move to center at some point in his career, but right now the Canadiens probably still need him on the wing and likely in a big role. David Desharnais typically plays with the team's best scorer, Max Pacioretty, but Tomas Plekanec is the No. 1 center on this club in both ice time and importance.
Malhotra looks like a good bet as the fourth-line center, but he will need to be better than he was last season with the Carolina Hurricanes. Michael Bournival could be the guy who sees the greatest increase in minutes with Gionta and Briere gone.
P.K. Subban's $72 million contract was the biggest move of the offseason for the Canadiens, but they also retained Andrei Markov and added Gilbert on terms that were well received. With Subban's regular partner during the playoffs, Josh Gorges, gone, Alexei Emelin can slide over to his natural left side and the right-handed Gilbert should slot in behind Subban.
Mike Weaver was an under-the-radar addition before the trade deadline, but inserting him (and removing a puck possession sinkhole like Douglas Murray) helped the Canadiens in a big way. He is likely to play with either Nathan Beaulieu or Jarred Tinordi on the team's third pairing.
Each could make the team, but given the other five guys that seem locked into regular roles, the loser of that competition is probably better off logging a lot of minutes in the American Hockey League and waiting for an opening.
Dustin Tokarski gave a valiant effort, but when the Canadiens lost Price at the start of the conference final, their chances of advancing were severely limited. Price has matured into one of the elite goaltenders in the League. If his place among the very best wasn't solidified before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, it was afterward, even if he didn't face a barrage of great chances while helping Canada to a dominant gold-medal performance.
One of the interesting things to monitor with Montreal could be Tokarski. He played pretty well in emergency duty, but could he unseat Peter Budaj and become Price's backup? The Canadiens also have one of the top prospects at the position, Zach Fucale, percolating in the pipeline.
Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter: @cmasisak22
2014-15 FANTASY PREVIEW: CANADIENS
Undervalued: Alex Galchenyuk - Galchenyuk, who leads the 2012 NHL Draft class in points (58 in 113 games), dealt with an injury last season but returned in time to score three points in five Stanley Cup Playoff games. With a full offseason to heal, the left wing should have his best season yet alongside Tomas Plekanec or Lars Eller and Brendan Gallagher. The 20-year-old, set to be a restricted free agent, had 10 power-play points in 65 games (2:02 PP TOI per game) and is a dual-eligible fantasy forward. The best part? He'll be available in the 15th round or later in standard drafts.
Overvalued: Andrei Markov - Over the past two seasons combined, Markov is second among defensemen in power-play points (44) behind teammate P.K. Subban (49). There's no questioning Markov's value in those situations, but owners looking to draft him among the top 15 at his position must be mindful of his age (35) and injury past (65 of possible 246 games played from 2009-10 to 2011-12). His value in multicategory leagues varies; he racks up blocked shots but does not generate many hits. He has had low penalty-minute totals for most of his career, and his shots last season (131 in 81 games, 46th among defensemen) reflected his career average (1.67). Consider him no earlier than the ninth or 10th round.
Sleeper: Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau - Injuries limited the right wing to 55 games last season and it didn't help that he was bounced around the lineup by Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy. Now, the Quebec native gets a fresh start and has a chance to compete for top-line minutes with Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais following Thomas Vanek's departure. Parenteau, 31, had a breakout season alongside John Tavares in 2011-12 with the New York Islanders (67 points, 19 power-play points, 167 shots) and carried it over to the shortened season of 2012-13 (43 points, 13 PPP in 48 games) playing with Matt Duchene. Parenteau will be drafted late, but could become fantasy-relevant again in no time.
Follow Pete Jensen on Twitter: @NHLJensen
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