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Therrien's team concept drives Canadiens to playoffs

by Arpon Basu

Team concept.

They are two words Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien has used together on countless occasions throughout this incredible turnaround season that has seen his team go from the worst record in the Eastern Conference to becoming the third NHL team to clinch a spot in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Though many coaches have attempted to instill a team-first concept, Therrien has done it in a way that makes every one of his players accountable not only to him, but to each other.

A balanced roster and a coach who holds each player accountable has helped the Montreal Canadiens rebound from finishing last in the East a year ago to a Stanley Cup Playoffs berth. (Photo: Getty Images / Francois Lacasse - NHLI)

"It doesn't matter who you are or who you think you are, you're held to a standard that the entire team is held to," Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges said earlier this season. "If you're not going to buy into it and do what's asked of you in accordance with the team, then you're not going to play. He's shown that and he's delivered that and he's stayed true to it and he's been fair with it."

For a glaring example of how the Canadiens have won as a team this season, a look at the game that clinched their playoff berth Thursday night would be a good place to start.

Montreal dominated the Buffalo Sabres 5-1, with five players scoring the goals -- three forwards, one from each of the Canadiens' top three lines, and two defensemen on the power play. In a nutshell, that is how Montreal has been so effective this season, with a balanced attack up front and a lethal power play fueled by the League's top power-play defense pairing, P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov.

No Canadiens forward played fewer minutes than Brandon Prust's 10:13, and no one played more than Rene Bourque's 17:14. Though it might be easy to point to the lopsided score to explain the balanced ice time, the game in Buffalo was the 16th time the Canadiens played in one decided by three or more goals this season, and the 13th time they were on the winning end. So the scenario that played itself out Thursday night has been a regular occurrence.

That balance -- that team concept -- has been the single biggest change in the Canadiens from last season to this one. They've gone from a team that relied on a single forward line for the bulk of its offense to one that gets it from up and down the lineup, a phenomenon significantly helped by the additions of rookies Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk.

The line of David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole was among the NHL's most productive last season, accounting for 84 of Montreal's 207 goals scored, 40.6 percent of the Canadiens offense.

According to how the lines were composed against Buffalo on Thursday, the line centered by Desharnais with Pacioretty and Gallagher accounted for 25.8 percent of the Montreal offense this season; the line of Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta and Rene Bourque (who missed 21 games with a concussion) was at 24.2 percent; the line of Lars Eller, Michael Ryder (not counting Ryder's six goals scored for the Dallas Stars this season) and Galchenyuk was at 17.7 percent; and Montreal's defense was at 21 percent. That represents 88.7 percent of Montreal's 124 goals fairly equally spread out between those four groups of players.

Entering Friday night's games, the Canadiens had a League-best 10 players with 20 or more points, but none with more than Ryder's and Subban's total of 34. The next closest were the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues with eight players apiece. Also, Montreal's six players with 10 or more goals -- an amount that would equate to roughly 21 goals in a regular 82-game schedule -- was also tops in the NHL.

"We don't rely on one or two guys," Eller said. "If someone has a bad night, there's always another line that steps up. I think that's one of the most encouraging things about this team."

The Canadiens have also gone from a team that needed goaltender Carey Price to be dominant in order to win to one that insulates him by allowing the fifth-fewest shots on goal in the NHL prior to Friday night's games, and more importantly spends most of its time in the offensive zone.

Price's save percentage is actually down slightly from last season, from .916 to .915, yet he's won 19 of his 32 games, seven short of his win total in 65 appearances in 2011-12. On top of that, backup Peter Budaj is 7-1-1 this season after picking up the win Thursday, already surpassing his total of five wins from a season ago and proving the Canadiens can win no matter who is in goal.

Finally, they've gone from a team that was ranked 28th on the power play a season ago to fourth this season, a byproduct of having a healthy Markov and a maturing Subban, who appears to be hitting his prime as an NHL defenseman at the age of 23.

And if you want to hear to what extent Therrien's team concept message has sunk in, Subban would be the No. 1 spokesperson for it.

"You've got to give the coaching staff and the organization credit," Subban told reporters after the game Thursday in Buffalo. "[General manager] Marc Bergevin, for his first year to come in and put together a group that was able to clinch a playoff spot with [eight] games left in the season, it's a pretty big accomplishment. Michel Therrien has obviously done a great job with our group. It's been an unbelievable year, from top to bottom. It's a huge accomplishment for us, but we're not finished. We have a lot to accomplish here."

People like to look at how drastic the turnaround has been, but it is also worth mentioning that last season's Canadiens were not quite as bad as they appeared.

In spite of the ever-present sense that the ship was sinking under the management of Pierre Gauthier with the firing of assistant coach Perry Pearn a couple of hours before a game, the firing of coach Jacques Martin just prior to a morning skate, and the trading of Michael Cammalleri between periods of a game in Boston, the Canadiens last season were a reasonably competitive club.

The Canadiens goal differential was minus-7, seventh best in the Eastern Conference. Markov, Gionta, Raphael Diaz, Travis Moen, Alexei Emelin, Scott Gomez, Chris Campoli and Mathieu Darche missed large portions of the season with injuries, with Markov and Gionta being the two most important ones.

So having a relatively healthy group with a far better environment surrounding the team under Bergevin's management and Therrien's coaching has done wonders for a team that, despite last season's disappointing result, believed in itself from the start.

"The doubts have been coming from the outside," Gionta said earlier this season. "These guys have believed in this group for a long time. You see when we're playing the system and we're on, we're a tough team to play against."

Once the Canadiens clinched a playoff spot Thursday night, Therrien was asked about it and a big smile appeared on his face as he acknowledged the accomplishment, noting there are several good teams every season that don't make the playoffs.

And when he was asked point blank to identify the one reason he believed the Canadiens were able to achieve that, Therrien's answer shouldn't have surprised anyone:

"The players accepted our team concept."

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