Looking back at the Puck Daddy Eastern Conference prognostications, none of the panelists had the Montreal Canadiens or the New York Islanders in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Hockey News had the Canadiens No. 13 in the East; the Islanders dead last in the conference. Ditto the Examiner. The Hockey Writers put the Canadiens at No. 11, but the Islanders were still the conference doormat.
Yet there are the Islanders, 4-2-1 on the season, in sixth in the conference. Yet there are the Canadiens, 5-2-0, in fifth in the conference. Neither are guaranteed to carry this success through the rest of the 48-game schedule; but both have shown enough in the early going to make one believe they could.
The miscalculation on the Canadiens by the punditry: The effect Michel Therrien would have on the roster, and that the roster had a bit more going for it than anticipated.
Having Andrei Markov healthy reminds us how frustrating it is when he isn’t. He has eight points in seven games, skating 24:47 TOI on average with nearly 30 shifts per game. He’s been one of the best defensemen in the League, skating with Alexei Emelin. With P.K. Subban back in the fold, skating with Francis Bouillon, and the Josh Gorges and Rafael Diaz (8 points!) pairings, the Habs have a solid blue line in front of Carey Price, who was the only dependable facet of the team entering the season.
Up front, Tomas Plekanec’s recaptured his game, and his line with Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta has produced 16 points in seven games. David Desharnais, Lars Eller and Erik Cole have been good, but haven’t found a groove yet.
But the real X-factor at forward are the rookies: Alex Galchenyuk (7 points) and Brendan Gallagher (5 points, plus-6), who are contributing great performances playing less than 13 minutes per game.
Therrien’s impact has been immediate, too: Turning the Canadiens into one of the most-penalized teams in the League.
When Brian Burke took over as president and GM of the Leafs on Nov. 29, 2008, he loudly announced: “We require as a team proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.”
That plan didn’t work out so well for Burke, who was fired before the start of this season after the Leafs missed the playoffs for the seventh straight year.
Now it looks like new Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin and coach Michel Therrien are taking a page from Smythe’s book. Through Thursday’s games, the Canadiens were leading the National Hockey League in penalty minutes, with an average of 22 per game. The Canadiens’ Ryan White led the league with 42 PIM, followed closely by teammate Brandon Prust with 41.
Bleu-blanc-rouge has been replaced with black-and-blue.
Also, Therrien hates fun. That's been established.
Toughness hasn’t been the New York Islanders’ problem for the last few season – winning has. Which is why it’s been impressive that the Isles have been “the best show in town” according to Rich Diaz of the (admittedly partisan) Eyes On Isles:
The Islanders played five of the better teams in the Eastern Conference these past seven days, and earned 7 out of 10 points. Meanwhile, they’ve elevated their special teams to elite status, as both the PK and the Power Play now rank top 1% in the league. And, for the most part, the Isles represent a successful hybrid of hockey, which now has some fans and critics believing them to be the NHL’s first legitimate dark-horse contender this year.
Here’s a quick glance: a) an elite star in John Tavares and to a lesser degree, Matt Moulson, b) rescued and/or resurrected talent like Keith Aucoin and Brian Strait, c) emerging/surging talent like David Ullstrom, Michael Grabner, and Casey Cizikas, d) staple players like Evgeni Nabokov, Mark Streit, and Travis Hamonic.
The Islanders have, entering Sunday the best power play (9 goals in 24 chances) and penalty kill (1 goal surrendered in 25 chances) in the NHL. The power play has gotten a boost from Brad Boyes, who has four points.
"We've gotten good goaltending, and your goaltender has to be your best penalty killer," coach Jack Capuano said.
And there’s your key to the Islanders PK this season: Evgeni Nabokov. He has a .968 save percentage on the PK, far outpacing a pedestrian .906 at even strength. That said, he’s provided some solid goaltending 5-on-5.
The Islanders can’t keep up the special teams pace they’re on. But with John Tavares hanging with the Hart Trophy field, Lubomir Visnovsky on the way and players like Brian Strait giving unanticipated efforts, the Isles might still be on the upswing.
As I’ve often said: The Islanders are primed to be the next Chicago Blackhawks. They’re a team that’s been down for so long that the hockey world’s ready to embrace them the moment they start winning, for the sake of new playoff blood and nostalgia for the Cup dynasty. Yes, despite the presence of Charles Wang and plentiful Rick DiPietro jokes ...
Could this be the year? And the biggest question, for both the Habs and Isles: At the expense of which Eastern Conference contender?