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Unheralded Canadiens still among NHL's elite teams

by Arpon Basu / NHL.com

MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens can be a difficult team to understand. They have been hovering around the top of the Eastern Conference for most of the season, yet the Canadiens are rarely mentioned among the elite teams in the NHL.

But here they are with a 28-13-3 record following a 6-4 win at home Saturday against the New York Islanders, who entered the game having won four in a row, including a big 6-3 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins at home a night earlier.

The Islanders were 6-1-0 this season playing the second of back-to-back games and had won their past four under those circumstances before losing to the Canadiens.

Prior to the game, Montreal talked about the opportunity to prove a point against a team that was getting the accolades around the League that the Canadiens felt they deserved but weren't getting.

"You want to earn respect across the League," forward David Desharnais said. "It's by beating those teams that you're going to do that."

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The Canadiens had a similar opportunity to do that a week earlier, when the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Penguins came to Bell Centre four days apart. But Montreal took one out of four points in the two games, was outshot 73-50 and went 0-for-7 on the power play.

The game against the Islanders is followed by a visit from the Central Division-leading Nashville Predators on Tuesday, providing a challenge not unlike the one last week. By beating the Islanders, the Canadiens gave themselves a chance to make the statement they failed to make a week earlier.

"We were disappointed with the way things went against Tampa," forward Dale Weise said. "Pittsburgh too; we were in that game and to lose it like that [2-1 in overtime] is obviously frustrating. So we weren't happy with that. We pride ourselves on being one of the best teams in the League at home, and we put a lot of focus on this one tonight. This is the top team in the Eastern Conference [entering Saturday], so we wanted to come out and play well and send a message to everybody."

Whether the Canadiens in fact did that remains to be seen, because their excellent record has a series of question marks attached to it.

The Canadiens have been remarkably spared by injuries this season, and it is difficult to believe that will continue all season. How will they react if it doesn't?

Montreal has consistently been a poor possession team all season. No team in position to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs has a lower Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 than the Canadiens.

A big reason Montreal has been able to overcome that is goaltender Carey Price, who has been dominant all season but missed the game Saturday with an upper-body injury. The Canadiens won without him against a top team, which in and of itself proved a point. But how long can they rely so heavily on goaltending for their success?

Price's strong play has also contributed to Montreal's extremely high PDO, a statistic that combines a team's shooting percentage and save percentage in an effort to measure luck. Prior to games Saturday, the Predators were the only team with a higher PDO than the Canadiens, and the general theory is that over the course of a full season a team's luck will even out. Will it in Montreal's case?

The answers to these and other questions will largely determine if the Canadiens can maintain their lofty status in the NHL standings. So will beating teams like the Islanders in the manner in which they did it.

"They're a top team in the League and we consider ourselves to be a top team as well," Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban said. "Whenever you play these types of game you want to make sure you have the right effort."

The Canadiens were essentially even on the shot-attempt counter at 5 on 5 against one of the top possession teams in the NHL; they also scored two goals on four power-play opportunities, and for the first time in weeks they had four forward lines that were able to spend time in the offensive zone and generate shots on goal.

Also, unlike many of Montreal's wins this season when Price was far and away the biggest factor, this was a game the entire team could claim as its own.

"That was a huge challenge for us, and we knew it," coach Michel Therrien said. "We needed a contribution from everyone playing their game and [bringing] what they're supposed to bring to the team. To be quite honest, everyone was involved tonight and did what they were supposed to do. That was a team win. That's the only thing a coach can ask of his players. They worked really hard, and they deserved to win."

It was a blueprint for success the Canadiens would be wise to remember.

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