What the Puck: Habs are punching above their weight, but for how long?

The team’s early success is real, but it’s also a bit of an illusion, Brendan Kelly writes.

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Quick. Put your hand up if you predicted that three weeks into the season the Montreal Canadiens would be third in the Atlantic Division.

No hands are going up because no one made that bet. This is a team still in the midst of a rebuild and pretty much every pundit suggested the CH would be spending most of the season lingering in the basement of the division and the conference.

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Well on Thursday afternoon, third in the Atlantic was exactly where the Habs were comfortably sitting, ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators. Who would’ve thunk it?

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Of course it begs the question: Are these Habs for real? Or is this yet another season where the Canadiens start off with all cylinders firing and then fade into obscurity in the second half? It has happened often in recent years. Heck it happened last season. The team was actually doing pretty well until Sean Monahan got injured in early December and never came back. That’s when things began to fall apart.

I always think of what a cab driver told me several years back: The Canadiens come into the season like a lion and leave like a chihuahua. I mentioned that pithy comment to someone at McLean’s Pub Wednesday while talking to Habs fans for the What the Puck video and she quite rightly quipped that most chihuahuas have more bite than the CH does at the end of most recent seasons.

My take is this early success is real and it’s also a bit of an illusion. Martin St. Louis said Monday’s game in Vegas against the Golden Knights was the best game he’s seen the lads play since he took over as head coach, and he might just be right. Montreal was the better team that night and it was just bad karma that Alex Newhook’s shot in the shootout careened off the post to give Vegas the victory. That is mighty impressive against probably the best team in the league at this moment.

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But in the two previous games, versus the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday and the Columbus Blue Jackets last Thursday, the CH looked disorganized with gusts up to completely lost in the early going. Then in both cases they mounted character comebacks with late-game heroics. Against Columbus at the Bell Centre, Cole Caufield won it with a patented CC snipe in overtime and on Saturday, the hero was captain Nick Suzuki, the only player to score in the shootout.

Not to put too fine a point on it, they’re inconsistent. That’s part of what makes them exciting to watch. They dig themselves a hole and then they claw their way out of it, often in spectacular fashion. My old friend, former Daybreak host Dave Bronstetter, nailed it in a Facebook comment: “Right now, they’re fun to watch. I’m going to concentrate on that. That, and avoid watching the first period.”

Clearly the biggest reason for the surprising 5-2-2 record is the goaltending. Jake Allen, who has been up-and-down since he was acquired by the Habs in the fall of 2020, is on fire this season. He was shaky in the opener against the Leafs, but has been excellent since. Samuel Montembeault has also been very good, with the exception of that ugly loss to the Minnesota Wild. History says the goalies won’t be able to keep that up.

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But the biggest reason the Habs are punching above their weight is the team spirit. There is an inspirational vibe to this squad like we’ve rarely seen this century, with maybe the exception of the couple of months in 2021 when they went on that completely unexpected Cup run. So yeah St. Louis deserves a lot of credit for what’s going on.

As do the defence corps, who have also done better than expected. At the start of the season, St. Louis called Mike Matheson ‘The General’ and at the time it seemed a bit over the top. But right about now I’m thinking the moniker fits the Pointe-Claire native like a well-worn hockey glove. The other blue-liner to really step up is Kaiden Guhle, who is having a terrific sophomore season. Oh and who saw all these goals coming from Justin Barron? Exactly, no one.

On the down side of the ledger, Juraj Slafkovsky looks just as lost in his second season, though it surely isn’t helping that he’s on a line with two guys, Newhook and Josh Anderson, who’re doing nothing to help him. With not a goal to his name, Anderson looks like a liability. He’s all rush and no skill so far.

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But if the goalies don’t fade, maybe just maybe they stay in the playoff conversation, to the dismay of the Habs-must-tank brigade.

“The thing with Montreal is, I love them, but we know that towards the end of the season it does get wobbly quite often,” said Habs fan and beer-league goalie Rachel Kennelly, who was enjoying a cold beverage at the pub. “We just have to enjoy the games and see where it goes. … I think we’ll see where the team is after the holidays. The true team energy gets created by that time.”

In other words, it’s just too early to conclude much of anything.

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