BROSSARD – The core players are the same, but the Canadiens are a completely different team in 2012-13 than they were last year.
A third of the way into the season and the Habs have managed to move from worst to first in the Eastern Conference standings since they closed out the 2011-12 campaign. Riding a five-game win streak into Thursday’s game against the Islanders and sitting first in the East for the first time since a five-day stint at the top in 2010 – albeit with three more games played than the division rival Bruins – the players who went through the ebbs last year are cautiously enjoying the flows these days.
“I don’t know if being first in the conference is so much a confidence booster. I think it’s more the way we’re playing that’s the confidence booster,” confirmed Josh Gorges of the impressive turnaround from finishing third-last in the league a year ago to sitting third in the NHL at the moment. “When we’re playing the right way and we’re doing the things that make our team successful, that’s what gives us confidence going into the next game.
“No matter what’s happened in the past, it’s in the past,” he added. “We have to worry about tonight. After tonight, we’re going to worry about the next game. Standings this early don’t really matter; it’s obviously great to be in the position we’re in but there’s lots of hockey left to be played and we can’t be satisfied with where we are.”
One of the most impressive aspects of the Canadiens’ ascent to the top of the East has been their ability to find balanced offense this season. After seeing the line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Erik Cole combine to score 40.6% of the team’s goals last year, the Habs have risen in the ranks and posted eight 4-plus goal games, despite not having a single player in the Top 30 in league scoring.
“From Day 1, the players have bought into the team concept,” explained new Habs bench boss, Michel Therrien. “The credit belongs with the players; we gave them a script, but actors go out and act. It’s the players who are getting it done. They’re the ones accepting their roles and that’s created a good atmosphere in here.”
Therrien may be minimizing his role in the turnaround in his first season back behind the Habs bench, but he’s managed to get the most out of his troops by praising his players when they need it and giving them a swift kick in the pants when the time comes.
Looking for more passion in Lars Eller’s game after the home opener on Jan. 19, Therrien wasted no time relegating the young Dane to watch from the press box. The message was received, and Eller now heads into Thursday night riding a two-game point streak, having assisted on Tuesday’s game-winning goal.
“[Lars] handled it like a pro,” confirmed Therrien. “He has a great attitude and he wants to get better. That’s the most important thing. You send a message to a player not only to punish him, but you want to send a message so the guy is going to get better when he comes back. The way Lars Eller is playing, he’s competing at both ends of the ice. I really like the way he’s been playing since he’s been back in the lineup.”
The Canadiens’ coach took a similar approach to reinserting Ryan White into the lineup on Monday after sitting him for four games to help him learn from his mistakes against Buffalo. Looking to close out a 3-1 lead against the Rangers, Therrien tapped the 24-year-old to take the biggest defensive faceoff of his season so far.
“When a player is playing a good game and it’s his role to be in that position, let’s say to take the faceoff at the end, I have to show the players some trust,” shared Therrien, who watched White go out and win the draw to clear the zone in the waning minutes. “The one thing I knew was he was going to give his heart in that situation for his teammates. That’s exactly what he did.”
With 32 of 48 games left to play, Therrien isn’t counting his chickens just yet, but he seems to have the right foundation to build on to make sure his team is still sitting on top come April 27.
“We’ve had a good start to the season and we’re happy,” he said. “But we know there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.SEE ALSO:
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