MONTREAL - Labeled by many as long shots to even make the playoffs, the Canadiens are nonetheless now sitting atop the Eastern Conference and loving the view.
Not since the 1992-93 season have the Habs led the conference so late in the season. That year, team captain Guy Carbonneau was making it happen on the ice as a player. This time around, he’s pushing all the right buttons from behind the bench.
“This obviously wasn’t our objective at the start of the season,” admitted Carbonneau. “Our goal was to work hard and improve on what we did last year and we’ve kept at it. Since Christmas, we’ve proven what we can do and beaten some really good teams along the way.
“I’m a competitive guy and I approach every game and every season believing we can do it,” added Carbonneau. “We’ve got character on this team and our young guys are growing up faster than we expected. It’s been a lot of fun to watch them go.”
Carbonneau isn’t the only one having fun these days.
“This feels great,” said a smiling Christopher Higgins. “It was pretty loud in here after we got off the ice. We’ll enjoy it tonight, but this is going to be a huge west coast swing for us. We’re going to have to be ready.”
All signs point to Carey Price
being up to the task. The rookie goalie has been lights out since being anointed the Canadiens’ undisputed No. 1 goalie, going 3-0 since Cristobal Huet’s trade to the Capitals.
“What else can you say about Carey?” asked Higgins rhetorically. “He’s making big saves and getting the job done. I just might have to take him out for dinner soon because he’s earned it.”
Breathing a sigh of relief is Carbonneau, who likes what he’s seen from his rookie goalie in the post-Huet era.
“It’s reassuring to see how much more comfortable he’s been since knowing he wasn’t battling for his spot like before,” said Carbonneau. “His record speaks for itself and he’s just doing what he’s done at every level before arriving here.”
Having soldiered through some difficult seasons over the years, looking down on the rest of the Eastern Conference is all the more special for Canadiens’ captain Saku Koivu.
“This is the first time in my career that we’ve been in first place this late in the season, so it feels great,” said Koivu, whose highest finish since joining the Habs came in his rookie year in 1995-96 when Montreal ended up as the sixth seed. “This is a pleasant surprise. Not many people saw us even making the playoffs this year.”
While the Canadiens might be sitting pretty, the last thing Koivu wants is for the Canadiens to get too comfortable on their perch.
“The road doesn’t get any easier for us the rest of the way,” warned Koivu. “Other teams in the league will be gunning for us now more than ever. It’s going to be up to us to fight to stay where we are.” Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com