A 5-1 win at the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday allowed the Montreal Canadiens to become the third team so far to punch a ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In spite of what appeared to be some very minor personnel changes coming into the season, the Canadiens have, from Day 1, been completely unrecognizable from the team that stumbled its way to a 15th-place finish in the Eastern Conference a season ago.
2012-13 PLAYOFF PICTURE
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How did they execute this turnaround so quickly? Here are five of the reasons:
Accountability -- On the opening day of training camp, general manager Marc Bergevin put his stamp on his new team when he announced that Scott Gomez would be sent home so that he could be protected from injury in advance of the summer buyout window. While the move was motivated by the drop in the salary cap next season, it also sent a very clear message to everyone on the team that performing below your potential will be unacceptable.
Coach Michel Therrien took that baton from his boss and carried it throughout the season, benching players for failing to follow the game plan or showing a lack of intensity, but always giving them a second chance to redeem themselves. The result has been a tight-knit team that is accountable to each other, and to their coach, ensuring that everyone is pulling in the same direction.
Health -- The Canadiens lost a staggering 439 man-games to injury last season, greatly contributing to their undesirable spot in the standings. While the team has not been completely healthy this season -- they've lost 108 man-games to injury in 40 games -- it is nowhere near what they had to endure last season. A healthy Brian Gionta and Andrei Markov have been the most important additions to the club. Gionta has been a fixture to the right of Tomas Plekanec all season on Montreal's top line, while Markov's return almost has single-handedly allowed the Canadiens power play to jump from 28th in the NHL last season to fourth this season. Speaking of which …
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Power play -- P.K. Subban (23) and Markov (22) sit first and second, respectively, in the NHL in power-play points. Between the two of them they have 15 power-play goals, which is just one fewer than the Boston Bruins and Winnipeg Jets each have as a team. While it's no secret what makes the Canadiens' power play go, it remains difficult to stop because opposing penalty-kill units cannot take both Markov and Subban away, often needing to focus on one or the other. If they choose to focus on the two men on the points, that opens things up considerably for the Canadiens' forwards. The result is that in 40 games, the Canadiens have scored a League-best 37 power-play goals, just six fewer than they had in 82 games last season. And they've done it without a drastic increase in the number of power-play chances, 3.67 per game last season compared to 4.13 this season.
Balanced offense -- The Canadiens are the League's fourth-highest scoring team at 3.10 goals per game, yet they have no one among the NHL's top-30 in scoring. Therrien gets offense from each of his top three lines. For those who point simply to the prolific power play to explain this, the Canadiens also are third in the NHL in even-strength goals for/against (1.37), behind only Chicago and Pittsburgh.
Great starts -- The Canadiens rarely have had to play from behind this season, allowing them to clamp down on opponents and forcing them to open up their play in order to make up deficits. Montreal has scored the game's first goal in 28 of its 40 games thus far, compiling a 20-5-3 record when they do score first, and they have trailed after the first period just three times. The Canadiens have scored 37 first-period goals and allowed a League-low 16, with their plus-21 goal differential in the first period tops in the NHL.