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Melrose Minute: Canadiens close to being East's best

by Barry Melrose / NHL.com

We're less than a week into the season and already there's plenty to talk about. We've had some surprises, some comebacks and a whole lot of offense in places we never expected. The New Jersey Devils scoring six goals on opening night? That used to be a month for the Devils. Some things, however, aren't that surprising. The depth of the Western Conference is obvious and the Eastern Conference still looks wide open, though a new team looks like it may be joining the Boston Bruins at the top of the heap.

Let's get right to it.

MONTREAL RISING

Last season the Montreal Canadiens made a surprising run to the Eastern Conference Final, but after a few games this season there is plenty of reason to believe they could make a return trip. Tomas Plekanec is on fire, goaltender Carey Price has looked all-world and backup goalie Dustin Tokarski has looked solid behind him. Max Pacioretty has been flying. Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk have gotten involved. This just looks like a very good, very fast team. Obviously there are certain players they can't afford to see miss extended time, especially Price and defenseman P.K. Subban. But the bottom line is in the early going nobody looks better in the East than Montreal.

The obvious competition for the Canadiens, Boston, hasn't started out well and the Bruins have a terrible schedule with a ton of games early on. I still think Boston will be a little better than Montreal once it gets its act together, but that hasn't happened so far. The Bruins don't look insurmountable. They've got cracks in their defense and they've been beaten up offensively.

I still think the conference comes down to who can beat the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but if you make it into the postseason at all in the East you can make a run. The Canadiens should do that at the very least, and right now it looks like they've closed the gap with their historic rivals.

STICKING WITH PATRICK KANE

On Saturday against the Dallas Stars, Patrick Kane didn't do much for the Chicago Blackhawks. He didn't have one of those "Patrick Kane" games, but on that crazy goal he scored in the shootout he showed once again that he's just so electric and so fun to watch. His hands are so soft and so good, watching him backhand the puck under the bar was just another reason to love watching him play.

To me he is the best stick-handler in the game, and his contemporaries think so, too. I spoke to Sidney Crosby a little while back and we were talking about stick-handling and he said he went to Patrick Kane's stick-handling coach this summer. I said, "What are you doing going to a stick-handling coach? You win the scoring race every year." He said, "Patrick Kane has more room than anybody on the ice." You watch Kane play and you know Crosby is right. Kane gets more room than other people. They're not in his grill the way they are with other players. Crosby told me he just wanted to see if Kane's guy could make him a better stick-handler.

It's pretty impressive when Crosby goes to someone else's coach because he wants to stick-handle like Patrick Kane. When the greatest offensive player in the game wants to be like you, that tells you something.

CAROLINA ON MY MIND

If you're someone who follows all 30 NHL teams, it's hard not to notice the terribly bad luck of the Carolina Hurricanes. Jordan Staal is out for months. Jeff Skinner has a concussion and that's something you have to treat delicately. Now Eric Staal will miss at least the Hurricanes' game Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). For a team that already was going to have to have everything go its way to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, this is just a terrible, terrible start to the season.

It also became clear against the New York Islanders this past weekend that goaltending will be an issue. I think being a goalie for Carolina this season is going to be like being on the endangered species list. You're always battling to survive. The injuries this team has had are going to make it difficult for Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin. They've both struggled, but they see so many shots in prime areas.

It's hard to be a good goaltender every game on a bad team and right now this is a struggling team. They were last season and they are this season. Much of those struggles are because of injuries, which you can't help, but it looks like it is going to be worse before it gets better in Carolina.

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