What the Puck: Who are the real Canadiens?

The Habs are doing better than expected this season thanks to strong goaltending from Samuel Montembeault and a hot first line.

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It’s time for the midseason report card on our Montreal Canadiens.

So? Are we a glass of Molson suds half-empty or are we half full of spring-2021-like Habs fever?

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Well on Thursday afternoon, still on a high from Les Boys’ surprise win over the New Jersey Devils in Newark Wednesday evening, it’s hard not to be feeling a wee bit upbeat. Especially since the victory in Jersey came a couple of days after what I’d argue was the team’s best game of the season, that Bell Centre thriller Monday when the good guys somehow bested the on-ice beast that is Nathan MacKinnon and his Colorado Avalanche.

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And that stellar performance came on the heels of a very good game Saturday when they went toe-to-toe with the surging Edmonton Oilers before losing in OT. So by the standards of the 2023-2024 Canadiens, they are on a roll.

Until you mention the loss last Thursday to the San Jose Sharks, who just happen to be the worst team in the National Hockey League. The lowly Sharks have won only nine other games this season!

So who are the real Canadiens? The one that shocked the Avs or the Keystone Kops who gave two points to the Sharks? Well both, actually. The team has a bad case of split personality, often enough with the two sides of the coin exhibited in the same game.

Both general manager Kent Hughes and president Geoff Molson spoke to the media this week with their midseason thoughts and both underlined the notion that the team needs to be more consistent going forward. And they’re right. If they could pull together a few wins in a row, then they might actually have a shot at some playoff action, something pretty well no one was expecting at the beginning of the season.

Before the game in Ottawa Thursday against the struggling Senators, Montreal was only four points out of the final wild-card berth in the east. So, to quote Marc Bergevin, anything is possible. Is it likely they make the playoffs? No. Is it possible? Absolutely.

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Would it be a good thing? Of course. Enough with this tanking nonsense. You come to the rink to win hockey games and if these young players can get a taste of post-season intensity, all the better.

The bottom line is that given we’re even talking about a wild-card spot for the CH in January, I think you have to give the outfit at least a B on the season. One of the biggest reasons they’re where they are is a fellow named Samuel Montembeault. He was brilliant again Wednesday in Newark and Monty was also en feu Saturday night when peppered with 41 shots by the Oilers.

It’s also incredible that they’re still in the playoff hunt while management is insisting on following this misguided three-goalie rotation. It’s the first notable mistake of the Jeff Gorton/Hughes era. Hughes again Monday refused to call Monty the No. 1 goalie, saying “Personally, I don’t like to give a title to anyone because I think that every day Sam should push to become the best goalie possible.”

He’s just lucky Montembeault is a mild-mannered chap and not a Patrick Roy hothead because there are no shortage of goalies who wouldn’t appreciate not being named the No. 1 guy. My view is they should have Monty as the main dude and Cayden Primeau as the backup. End of story. Sit Jake Allen.

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The other thing that is surprising about where they are in the standings is the fact the team has done this without Kirby Dach, whose season ended in the second game, and Alex Newhook, who has been out of the lineup since early December. Two key top-six guys MIA.

But let’s not go crazy either with this half-full stuff. The team still only has one line, a line that has come to life since Juraj Slafkovsky joined it early last month. Since Slaf arrived beside Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki, Caufield has got his swagger back, to use his own favourite term. He scored his sixth goal in his last 10 games on Wednesday night, but even more impressive was CC batting the puck out of mid-air behind the net to serve Slafkovsky with a perfect pass on his goal.

But beyond that No. 1 line, you ain’t got much up front. There is lots of promise on the blue line, but let’s be honest and admit it’s often an adventure in their own zone. Like everyone else, my biggest pleasant surprise has been Hughes’s old friend Jayden Struble, who’s smart and tough on the ice.

It’s still way too early to call the Gorton/Hughes reconstruction plan a success, but I have to admit I like the fact there is a plan, something we haven’t seen since … oh say 2012. The jury is also still out on Martin St. Louis. It will only be in when he coaches a team that absolutely has to win games.

There’s no denying that Gorton, Hughes and St. Louis all possess smart hockey brains and this is a good thing. Will it lead the bleu-blanc-rouge to the promised land? There is an increasingly loud group of pundits and fans who think the real problem is the lack of a real star scorer. Some think that could’ve been Matvei Michkov. Others, like me, think Hughes needs to package a couple of his hotter young players and get himself a point-per-game player, even if the kindly ol’ GM claims ‘point-per-game player’ is not something he really thinks about.

In short, the midseason grade is B. Let’s see how they do on their final exams.

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