In a season where they plan to honor their storied past, the Montreal Canadiens might have the right makeup to add another Stanley Cup title to their record total.
The Canadiens open their 100th season Friday night when they visit the Buffalo Sabres, who look to bounce back from missing the playoffs after reaching the conference finals the previous two seasons.
Arguably the most recognizable franchise in all of hockey, Montreal has a wide range of celebrations planned over the next two seasons, leading up to the 100th anniversary of the team's founding as an original member of the National Hockey Association on Dec. 4, 1909 - eight years before the creation of the NHL.
Montreal (47-25-10) tries to build off a season where it led the Eastern Conference with 104 points, but lost in five games in its semifinal series with Philadelphia.
"Obviously there's going to be more attention and more stuff going on off the ice but I think the guys were used to some of that in the last couple of years," Canadiens captain Saku Koivu said. "When you talk about the pressure and the expectations, I think we created that last year. It's an exciting feeling and we know we're not going to surprise people anymore, so we just have to be ready from day one."
With some a deep group of forwards and a promising young goaltender in the mix, the Canadiens appear to have a team capable of capturing the franchise's 25th Stanley Cup and first since 1992-93. They will be tested early, however, as they open with three straight road games. After this contest, Montreal faces Toronto and Philadelphia before opening at home versus Original Six rival Boston on Oct. 15.
"This year will be different with everything happening around the team," said Alex Kovalev, who led the team with 35 goals and 84 points last season. "It's definitely going to be something to remember."
Montreal's 262 goals led the NHL last season, thanks to career highs from Tomas Plekanec (29), Christopher Higgins (27), Andrei Kostitsyn (26) and defenseman Andrei Markov (16). The addition of center Robert Lang from Chicago and forward Alex Tanguay from Calgary could make the Canadiens even more potent in 2008-09.
Carey Price has the No. 1 goalie job to himself after supplanting Cristobal Huet and going 24-12-3 with a 2.56 goals-against average as a rookie last season. The the AHL's playoff MVP the previous spring, went 12-3 down the stretch and shut out Boston in Game 7 of a first-round series.
Price went 3-1-0 with a 2.23 GAA versus Buffalo, which has dropped its last three contests to Montreal and went 3-4-1 versus the Candies last season.
Buffalo (39-31-12), the President's Trophy winner with 113 points in 2006-07 after recording 110 the previous season, never seemed to recover from losing stars Daniel Briere and Chris Drury via free agency and finished with 90 points for 10th in the East. Buffalo became only the third team since NHL expansion in 1967-68 to miss the playoffs a year after winning the regular-season title.
"Hopefully, we're a year older. And hopefully, we're a little more mature," goaltender Ryan Miller said. "We've got to take our lesson from last year."
A season after winning 40 games, Miller went 36-27-10 with a 2.64 GAA while appearing in a career high 76 games. Miller, 10-5-3 with a career 2.62 GAA versus Montreal, likely won't have to see that much time after the Sabres acquired veteran Patrick Lalime to serve as a backup.
Thomas Vanek led the team with 36 goals, but his point total was down from 84 to 64 in the span of a season as Buffalo went 14-18 in one-goal games after going 25-16 in 2006-07. Vanek had three goals and five assists in eight games against Montreal last season.
The Sabres hope Derek Roy can build off his career high 32 goals and Jason Pominville from his 80-point season that featured 53 assists.