BROSSARD - Not only are the Montreal Canadiens currently sitting in first place in the NHL, the team is also off to its best start to a season in almost four decades.
According to Max Pacioretty, the NHL’s leading goal scorer, the hot start can be attributed to the team’s steady and mobile defense core.
“It’s been exciting for our defensemen. I think they’re kind of the main reason why we’ve played so well so far,” reflected Pacioretty, who is currently tied for tops in the NHL with four goals this season. “In the first four games, they’ve been getting pucks up to the forwards quickly and giving us time to get opportunities, but they’ve also been contributing by joining the rush and the attack in the offensive zone.”
Canadiens teams under the direction of Michel Therrien have been known to rely on their speed and transition game to stifle the opposition’s attack and respond with scoring chances of their own. Having a mobile defense corps that can join the rush offensively makes the Canadiens an even more formidable opponent.
“All of our lines have speed and I think that’s what’s made it so tough for the opposition. We feed off turnovers and when we transition quickly and we use our speed, we’re a tough team to play against. And we’ve shown that so far,” added the Canadiens’ captain. “We’ve had a lot more fun in the offensive zone. Our D-men are all moving the puck very quickly and they can all skate. They’ve joined the rush a lot and they’ve been involved in the attack. That’s made things a lot easier on us.”
In his fourth year since beginning his second stint behind the Canadiens’ bench, Therrien has helped the 2015-16 Habs become the fourth team in franchise history to start a season with a 4-0-0 record, and the first since 1977-78.
The veteran coach credited pivot Jeff Petry with helping provide depth and stability on the blue line. Petry, a six-year NHL veteran, has earned his coach’s trust, logging over 21 minutes of ice time per game through the start of the campaign.
“He’s a great skater, he has good vision, he competes, and he likes to play for our team. After two weeks, he felt very comfortable with our group. He was a big acquisition for our team,” praised Therrien, who pointed out the calming influence Petry has on his defense partner, Alexei Emelin. “I like that pairing. They can be physical. A guy like Emelin can be demanding for good players to play against. We saw it yesterday. They have good chemistry.”
The Russian rearguard worked hard this offseason to improve his mobility and acceleration and has shown good chemistry alongside Petry.
“Emmy is a lot quicker than he was. He worked a lot over the summer on his quickness, and we can see the results on the ice,” concluded coach Therrien.
Petry’s combination of mobility and composure has also caught the attention of 22-year-old defensemen Nathan Beaulieu.
“He just does everything so well. Offensively he puts up great numbers, defensively he’s so sound. He’s got a big body, too. He’s a guy that can bring every aspect to the game and play hard,” commented Beaulieu, who also echoed his coach’s remarks about the chemistry displayed by the Emelin- Petry duo. “Guys are going to notice when [Emelin] is on the ice, he’s a grueling defenseman, he lays some big checks out there, guys are going to second guess making plays and that’s just going to open the ice for Petry. They’re a good one-two punch.”
With each defense pairing featuring both a left-handed and right-handed shot, the key to the Canadiens’ blue line this season is balance.
“We concentrate on playing as a five-man unit. That’s what we’ve been preaching from Day 1 at training camp,” explained Therrien, who heads into this season’s home opener with an unblemished record. “We’ve got players who can skate well and move the puck, which really helps the concept of playing in a unit of five, not only defensively but also offensively. Every year we try to bring something new to the table. The players are really receptive to that.”
Jared Ostroff is a writer for canadiens.com