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Changes have Canadiens on verge of early history

by Arpon Basu

BROSSARD, Quebec -- It's not easy to make history when you play for the Montreal Canadiens.

But that's exactly what the 2015-16 Canadiens have an opportunity to do Thursday when they host the New York Rangers in their home opener at Bell Centre (7:30 p.m. ET; SN360, MSG, RDS).

The Canadiens are 4-0-0, the fourth time they have opened a season with four wins. The three previous times (1955-56, 1970-71 and 1977-78), the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup.

They have never won five in a row to start any of their previous 97 NHL seasons.

Coach Michel Therrien learned of the history being made Tuesday evening after the Canadiens ruined the Pittsburgh Penguins' home opener with a 3-2 victory, and he's trying as best he can to maintain some composure amid the hot start.

"You've got to be really humble about success and understand it's a battle every night," Therrien said after an optional practice Wednesday. "It's good for the confidence, but we have to stay really humble."

Four-game win streaks on the road aren't common in the NHL, but they happen. When it comes at the start of a season, it can be blown a little bit out of proportion. However, in the case of the Canadiens, it is more the manner in which they have been winning that is a good omen.

If they had instead won two of their four games on season-opening visits to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators and Penguins, the tactical changes the Canadiens have made would still be a storyline worth discussing. The fact they won all four games without trailing in any of them only serves as proof that the changes are working.

The Canadiens' biggest weakness last season was their inability to score; they were 20th in the NHL in offense, last among teams that qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. A major reason was Montreal took 48.5 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5, a rate that ranked 23rd in the NHL.

This season, the Canadiens have scored 13 goals and have taken 54.34 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5, ninth in the NHL prior to games Wednesday.

After practically being a taboo talking point in the Canadiens dressing room the past two seasons, the words "puck possession" are being said more often than ever.

"We're working a lot more on puck possession," Therrien said. "You can't forget we have some different players. You look at a guy like [Alexander] Semin, the fact we put [Alex] Galchenyuk at center because we think he's ready, and he's doing a really good job, [Tomas] Fleischmann, the maturity of our young players like [Nathan] Beaulieu, all that works together.

"It's not that we didn't want to last season, but we hadn't reached that step yet as a team. Every year you have to consider the maturity of your team, there are a lot of things to take into consideration. So we think we've reached another level, and the players are very receptive to it."

The principal tactical change Therrien and his staff have instituted is activating the defense on almost every rush up the ice, adding a fourth player to the attack when the Canadiens hit the opposing blue line. The biggest impact of that change, captain Max Pacioretty said, is it creates space for the Canadiens to cross the blue line with control of the puck.

In the past, the Canadiens largely relied on chipping the puck behind the defense and retrieving it in the offensive zone, an option that works about as often as it doesn't. Carrying the puck has been proven to create more scoring opportunities over the long haul, and that's what the Canadiens have been able to do.

"It's been exciting for our defensemen," Pacioretty said. "I think they're kind of the main reason we've played so well so far in the first four games. They've been getting pucks up to the forwards quickly and giving us time to create opportunities, but also contributing by joining the rush and joining the attack in the offensive zone."

Therrien said the Canadiens tried to introduce the idea of adding a defenseman to the rush more regularly last season, but it was difficult to make it second nature for his players after they had grown accustomed to a less-aggressive approach. This season, it has been preached since Day One of training camp, and the players have responded. Having defenseman Jeff Petry from the start of the season also helps because it gives every pairing a mobile puck mover, with P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov on the top pair, Petry on the second and Beaulieu on the third.

In every game the Canadiens have played, defensemen have been driving the net on backdoor plays in transition, forcing opposing defensemen to respect that threat and back off from the blue line, creating space to enter the zone with control.

"Offense from the back end is a huge threat in this league," Beaulieu said. "There's so many tight-checking games that if you know you can add a fourth man on the rush and work as a five-man unit in the offensive zone, it's going to pay off and create more scoring chances."

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