MONTREAL — With a little more than a quarter of the season in the books, it’s report-card time — and some late-semester cramming had Dean Michel Therrien smiling this week.
The Canadiens’ underachieving offence exploded for six goals against the Minnesota Wild Tuesday, and while it was only one game, it offered a hint of the team’s potential. The Canadiens averaged more than three goals a game last season to rank third in the National Hockey League behind Pittsburgh and Detroit, but this season they are No. 17 with 2.59 goals a game.
DEFENCE: Coach Therrien believes in the axiom that defence wins championships, and the Canadiens are solid in this area with goaltenders Carey Price and Peter Budaj leading the way. The team has the second-best goals-against average in the NHL at 2.04,
The Canadiens lead the NHL with 427 blocked shots, although that statistic can be problematic because it suggests the Canadiens aren’t doing enough to take away the opposition’s time and space. They also rank 21st in shots allowed with an average of 31.1 per game.
The next quarter of the season promises to be even better because it appears defenceman Alexei Emelin has made a full recovery from major reconstructive knee surgery. In his second game back, Emelin provided a physical presence with five hits and he blocked five shots. With Andrei Markov, P.K. Subban, Josh Gorges and Alexei Emelin, the Canadiens have a solid top four on the blue line and some experience in the third pair with the mix of Francis Bouillon, the constantly improving Raphael Diaz and Douglas Murray.
OFFENCE: Here’s where the Canadiens need some improvement. Therrien has been searching for the right chemistry up front, and the only consistent point producers among the forwards have been Tomas Plekanec, Lars Eller and youngsters Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher.
David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty struggled in the early going, but they’re hoping they had a breakthrough against Minnesota. Pacioretty scored a natural hat trick and two of the goals were the result of great passes from Desharnais.
Plekanec continues to be a two-way iron man, and the key is to find two wingers to play with him on a consistent basis. A healthy Brian Gionta has found a spot on the right wing, while Rene Bourque, Daniel Brière and rookie Michael Bournival have all had a shot on the left. Bournival is making a determined pitch for a larger role. The rookie has size and speed, and his six goals make him the team leader in terms of goals per minute of ice time.
GOALTENDING: Look for both goalies at the Sochi Olympics, with Price as the No. 1 for Team Canada, while Budaj should be backing Jaroslav Halak for Slovakia. These two complement each other and Price has regained his spot among the league’s elite with a helping hand from goaltender coach Stéphane Waite. One area that still needs improvement is Price’s play in shootouts, but that’s an area in which the shooters need to give him some support.