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Lighting the way

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens
MONTREAL – There were a few factors that led to the Canadiens skipping from 15th in the conference to first in the division in half a season. The biggest was Michel Therrien.

When Therrien returned for his second stint behind the Habs bench this summer, he came in a decade older and wiser than the rookie coach who left Montreal mid-way through the 2002-03 season. In the 10 years since, he’s groomed young stars-in-the-making with Pittsburgh’s minor league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, he helped a young Sidney Crosby lead the Pens to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007-08, he worked as a scout in Minnesota and then as an analyst for RDS.

During his time away from his first hockey home, he used every experience possible to help create a blueprint for the way he wanted to run his team the next time he set foot behind an NHL bench.  While he ended the season edged out by Joel Quenneville, Bruce Boudreau and Paul MacLean in Jack Adams Award voting, Therrien still managed to put those plans into action to spark yet another impressive improvement inside an NHL dressing room.
Highlights: Playoff-clinching game vs. Buffalo

“I had experience in changing a team’s culture when I was in Pittsburgh,” explained Therrien during an interview for CANADIENS magazine in April. “In my first full year there, we had 47 more points [than the previous year]. I think that was the fifth-best turnaround in NHL history. The success we had there came quickly with young guys; Jordan Staal was 18, Sidney [Crosby] was 19.

“Every situation is different, but when I got here, I got a chance to start from Day 1,” continued the Montreal native, who finished fifth in Adams Award voting in 2001-02 and third in 2006-07. “The guys came in with a great attitude. For me, attitude means a lot. I’ve told those guys before, and I keep repeating myself, ‘You can play with a bad shoulder, you can play with a bad ankle, but you can’t play with a bad attitude.’ It all starts with the attitude.”

Therrien took a team that finished 28th in the NHL in 2011-12 to one that ranked fourth in the league in 2012-13. Riding his team concept all the way to the top of the division, the veteran bench boss lead the Habs to a 29-14-5 record in 48 games this year – two fewer wins than they had in a full 82-game season in 2011-12. For veterans who have watched the team’s culture change before their eyes, it’s no question the secret to the Canadiens’ success begins behind the bench.

“It was different [this year]. From Day 1, everyone was on the same page, everyone was disciplined and everyone had to follow the same rules,” shared Tomas Plekanec, who has played every one of his 598 career NHL games as a member of the Canadiens. “Discipline and wanting to have success were the biggest [factors] in the turnaround.”

Icing a healthy lineup after leading the league in man games lost to injury last season, adding grit to the roster in Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong and Francis Bouillon during free agency and grooming 19-year-old phenom Alex Galchenyuk and 21-year-old Calder contender Brendan Gallagher didn’t hurt, either. For Therrien, the biggest strength of his team was the ability to play as a team.

“I always believed we were a group that was going to battle all the way to the playoffs. It was a bad year last year in different ways. They had a lot of injuries,” mentioned Therrien. “I saw the team play quite a bit, but I wasn’t inside.  Once I got here, I discovered great leaders in this dressing room – good people who wanted to prove that last year was just a bad year.

“What impresses me are the little things. A guy who blocks shots, a guy who will stand up for his teammates, a guy who’s going to backcheck,” he described. “All those details that aren’t recognized by the fans or the media. When a guy scores a goal, everyone knows he scored a goal – they announce his name. But a guy who sacrifices himself for his teammates, that’s the most important thing for me. For me, it’s all about the team.”

Shauna Denis and Matt Cudzinowski are writers for

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