Rabid Habs

Daunting Week Displays Habs’ Character

When teams manage to find success after struggling, analysts often point to a turning point; a single plot on a timeline where the fortunes of a hockey team changed. When it comes to the Canadiens, it seems as though they had three all in one week while the hockey Gods seemed to have other ideas. While losses could have been blamed on distractions swirling around the club, the Habs just had their most successful week in over three months.

I was at the Habs’ game on Monday night when they took on the New Jersey Devils in Newark. It was the second time I would see the Canadiens play the Devils at the Prudential Center, but there were some differences between the two visits.

The biggest difference, of course, was the coaching change. On a smaller scale, Marc Bergevin was beginning to tinker with his roster with the trade deadline just a few days away. Jordie Benn became a Hab while I was driving on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. Greg Pateryn, who was presumably already at the arena, was sent to Dallas along with a 4th round pick.

As a fan, we criticize players who use distractions as an excuse for a lack of focus. If I hear one more joke about some of the Canadiens younger players enjoying a night on the town in Montreal, it will be too soon. However, the fact of the matter is that these players, no matter how stoic they appear, are only human.

Look, for example, at Nathan Beaulieu. Rumors around him are swirling, and two days before the deadline, your team acquires another left-handed defenseman. How do you go out and play a game with all this going on? How did any of them do it?

And that was just Monday; a Monday that saw the Canadiens erase two separate two-goal deficits en route to a 4-3 OT win against the Devils.

Tuesday was an entirely different mountain to climb. The Habs returned home on short rest to take on the Columbus Blue Jackets; a Blue Jackets team that infamously embarrassed the Canadiens earlier on this season. After having two goals waived off, the Canadiens would win in dramatic fashion once again, capturing a 1-0 OT win against one of the league’s best teams.

And at some point in that game, the Canadiens’ players found out that David Desharnais had been traded to Edmonton. Say what you want about the play of the Laurier-Station native, but you cannot say he was not loved in that locker room.

Then the day players fear the most comes and goes with Sven Andrighetto as the Habs only casualty of the day. Adding size and depth at the forward position, Bergevin made his position on the Habs scoring woes clear: it’s up to the guys in the room to figure it out.

Of course, the next 24 hours would be all about a guy who is no longer in the Habs’ locker room. PK Subban’s return to Montreal played out just like PK would have wanted it: loud, in your face, and was the focus of Montreal media.

For the fans who loved Subban, it was everything they could have wanted. For the players, I can only imagine it was a bit of a distraction. Just ask Shea Weber (or Kyle Bukauskas of Sportsnet). And instead of whining and making excuses, the Habs managed to take a gutsy two points out of Subban’s return. Not only did the Habs manage to score two third-period goals to sink the Predators, but the goal scorers were players that Marc Bergevin wanted to step up. Both Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron went goal-less in the month of February, but both found the back of the net in the first game in March.

To top all of this off, the Ottawa Senators have been breathing down the Canadiens’ neck for some time now, and the rest of the division lurks just behind them. The win against the Predators kept pace with Ottawa and kept the Habs six points ahead with Ottawa holding three games at hand over Montreal.

Why is all of this important? To start, it seems like the Canadiens are hitting their stride at the right time. Four straight wins has the Habs back on track, and Claude Julien’s new defensive structure has made Montreal a stingy team to play against.

On a more intangible note, the pressure filled week tested the Canadiens’ character. I know some people are tired of hearing about the importance of CHaracter, but there has to be some truth to it. Just ask Claude Julien, who marveled at Alexander Radulov’s block on a Subban one-timer late in the third period.

This week, and the rest of the season, is a tune-up for the playoffs. Every game for the rest of the season is a meaningful game, which will help the Habs if they wish to go on a lengthy playoff run. Just ask the 2010 Washington Capitals, who stopped playing meaningful games in January as they ran away with the President’s Trophy. Playing in meaningful, intense match-ups now is more important than winning your division or finishing as the top seed in your conference.

If the Canadiens manage to go on a lengthy Cup-run, this week will be the point in the season where the Habs’ became contenders. Through all the noise, Montreal picked up valuable points in dramatic fashion; something they had failed to do consistently since November.

Despite anemic scoring, endless distractions, and pressure from divisional rivals, the Canadiens have done something that all contenders do.

Just win.

Follow Ian on Twitter @BoisvertIan