- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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MONTREAL -- The story of the Montreal Canadiens last spring was a beautiful one: the NHL's most passionate market electrified by a stunning Final Four appearance at the expense of powerhouses Washington and Pittsburgh.
Thing is, that's where most people figured the story would end entering this season. Turn the page, boys, come back down to earth. Playoff team? Sure. But two points from the Eastern Conference lead in mid-November? C'mon.
"The surprise is not that they're there, the surprise is that they've largely done it without Andrei Markov," an NHL team executive told ESPN.com Tuesday night.
Who would have thunk that?
On the night the Habs made it official that Markov is out long-term after reinjuring the same right knee he had surgically repaired last summer, life without Andrei resumed in brilliant fashion with a 3-0 victory over the powerhouse Philadelphia Flyers. The Habs are now 8-2-1 without Markov in the lineup this season.
There are wins and there are statement victories that carry more than just two points in the standings, they carry swagger points. The Flyers, for my money, are the best team in the Eastern Conference right now. They've got it all -- three scoring lines, forward depth that's insane, the best blue-line corps in the East and suddenly a Russian goalie named Bob who seems legit.
But in a rematch of last spring's Eastern Conference finals, when the Flyers ended Montreal's dreamy run, the Canadiens delivered a message not just to the mighty Flyers but to the rest of the conference: "We're ba-a-a-a-c-k."
"We know what we can do in here," Habs rookie blueliner P.K. Subban said after one of his electrifying nights. "Last year in the playoffs we discovered a lot of things about our team, about the guys in this room and what we can do. It's carrying over to this season. There's a lot of veteran players on this team that have experience and have won, that have been top players in this league for a long time. They're the guys leading this team and commanding the guys to show up every night and that's what we're doing right now."
Well, and there's the guy in goal, who stopped 41 shots Tuesday night for his third shutout of the season. But more on Carey Price's sensational story later this week on ESPN.com. Heck, it's the reason I'm here!
Supporting Price's All-Star season so far have been some impressive foot soldiers. Center Tomas Plekanec has been outstanding once again, now with 10 points (2-8) in his past five games while also providing top-notch penalty killing. Brian Gionta had a slow start, but he has now come on, leading the way Tuesday night with three points (1-2).
But there are also the guys on the back end who don't get much fanfare. The Canadiens are the third-stingiest team in the NHL, giving up only 2.12 goals per game. Of course, Price is a big part of that, but the D-men in front of him deserve credit, too. Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek, Josh Gorges, Roman Hamrlik and, of course, Subban have been a solid corps this season.
"I thought our defense again played a strong game tonight," head coach Jacques Martin said. "I thought they did a good job containing the Flyers."
The penalty killing? It might have saved Montreal's season early on when the power play was dreadful for the Canadiens. Montreal killed all eight Flyers power plays Tuesday night and is now tied for second in the NHL with an 88.9 percent kill rate.
"I think our penalty killing has been outstanding since the beginning of the season," Martin said.
And what of the coach himself, the veteran bench boss who has been coaching in this league since 1986. Remember the reaction when the Habs brought him in as head coach two years ago after he left his GM job in Florida?
Martin did some kind of coaching job in the playoffs against Washington and Pittsburgh, and his impact on this roster continues to reveal itself. Top five in goals against and penalty kill? Martin trademarks of course.
The Canadiens are an organized and disciplined hockey team and that's a reflection of an excellent coaching staff.
And so, now what? Will the Eastern Conference penthouse keep room for the Habs all season long or will they fall back down to earth?
"We know in this league things can turn around in a hurry," Subban said. "But with the guys in this room, honestly, consistency hasn't been a problem because of the leadership. We're going to keep working, I promise you that."
So, remember last season's Stanley Cup finals when Chris Pronger tried to keep the game puck away from the Chicago Blackhawks after a few games, angering the opposition. There was the Flyers star blueliner Tuesday night trying to keep the game puck away from the Canadiens, who wanted it for goalie Carey Price and his shutout. Habs center Scott Gomez and captain Brian Gionta chased down Pronger and got it from him.
Price? He then flipped the puck to a kid in the stands.
"I was wondering what was going on," Price shrugged afterward. "I should tell those guys [Gomez and Gionta] that I don't really care about the puck."
1dScott Burnside and Craig Custance