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Character key to Canadiens' resurgence

2/20/2013

First place in the Eastern Conference was the last thing on anybody’s mind in Montreal after the Canadiens were waxed 6-0 at home by the rival Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 9.

But what happened next was perhaps a revealing indicator about these surprising Canadiens this season. The Habs followed up easily their worst performance of the season by winning five straight games over the next 10 days.

Character.

It’s a word GM Marc Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien use often.

And in their first season at the helm of hockey’s most famous franchise, it’s apparent that word is finding true meaning within the dressing room walls.

"What I’ve really liked in what I’ve seen is the way in which we’ve competed," Bergevin told ESPN.com Wednesday on the phone from his Montreal office.

"One thing I know about Michel and Bergy, they are competitors," former NHL GM Craig Button, an analyst for TSN and the NHL Network, said over the phone Wednesday. "They can stand maybe not being good enough in the skill areas, but they won’t stand not being competitive."

The Habs, quite frankly, were pushovers last season en route to a disastrous, drama-filled season that saw GM Pierre Gauthier and head coach Jacques Martin fired. They played like a soft team.

Hired May 2 as GM, Bergevin didn’t wait long to identify what he needed to do with his team.

"I knew looking at this team taking over back in May what was lacking, the way in which I wanted to build this team moving forward, and there’s intangibles such as character, hard work, charisma, grit -- there’s no stat for that," Bergevin said.

Enter the signings of Brandon Prust, Francis Bouillon and Colby Armstrong. Bring on the sandpaper.

"Bouillon was a real under-the-radar signing," Button said. "He’s a real competitor."

Prust has been nothing short of terrific in his role. He’s largely skated alongside impressive rookie Alex Galchenyuk, he’s killed penalties, defended his teammates and he’s already one of the most popular players in Montreal. The New York Rangers miss him.

"As an ex-player, I know how much the dressing room means and I know what he means," Bergevin said of Prust. "He’s going to block shots no matter what the score is. He cares. That’s what I want this team to be about moving forward. I want guys that care about one another, and he fits the mold."

"Brandon Prust is a guy that makes up the fabric of your team," Button added. "They’re the guys that drag you into the fight. He plays only one way -- to win. And that’s infectious."

It goes without saying that the top-notch goaltending of Carey Price has been, as always, a major factor. A healthy captain in Brian Gionta has also been noticed. And who’s kidding who, Andrei Markov -- alive and well -- has been a monumental key.

"When your No. 1 defenseman misses basically two years of hockey, it’s going to hurt you. I don’t care which team you have," Bergevin said. "Markov came in healthy this year and it makes a big difference on our club."

It’s buoyed the power play, the penalty kill, and allowed the other defensemen on the team to just do their thing.

"What that does is that it puts everybody into their proper slot," Button said. "People don’t have to play above their slot or carry more responsibility than their skill set dictates."

The Habs have terrific balance on their three defense pairings: Markov with fellow Russian (and bone-crushing body checker) Alexei Emelin, Josh Gorges with the impressive Raphael Diaz, and the electric P.K. Subban with Bouillon.

Tomas Kaberle isn’t the Tomas Kaberle of old, that’s obvious, but the fact Montreal can stash him as its seventh defenseman and a healthy scratch on most nights tells you there’s some depth on defense.

What for me, though, was Bergevin’s single most important decision came last June when he hired Therrien as coach.

"I think bringing in Michel Therrien was bold," Button said. "Good coaches evolve, and I think that’s true of Michel. I think he’s real comfortable in his own skin."

It was not a choice that made everyone happy among fans and media. Therrien had already had a stint as Habs coach and not everyone believed a second chance was warranted.

"When I hired Michel, there was a bit of backlash from some people saying, 'Well, he’s already been here before.’ Well, I saw that as a plus," Bergevin said. "You gain experience. As a first-year coach coming here the first time at 37, I thought that would be hard on anybody. He did a good job here, then went on to Wilkes-Barre (AHL) and Pittsburgh and learned more. Building this team, I know I have to do it through the draft and young players. Michel’s background of having success with young players in Pittsburgh, he was very successful doing that. That was important to me."

Under Therrien, the Canadiens have cut down their goals against per game from 2.61 last season to 2.12, and improved their scoring from 2.52 a game last year to 2.81 per game this season.

The GM and the coach have an open dialogue. They’re on the same page.

"When we talk, it’s easy. Our personalities match," Bergevin said. "We get along. There’s times we don’t have the same opinion on things, that’s normal. Away from the game, I also respect him as person. There’s a match there."

Bergevin’s passion for the game oozes in his voice. This is his dream job. I asked him in closing Wednesday, can he absorb it all and have fun with this?

"Am I having fun? Yes, but I also realize this is a journey," the Canadiens GM said. "We have a long way to go. You look at the standings in the East, there isn’t a single team that’s out. You lose three games and you’re in seventh and you lose two more and you’re in ninth. Every night, the points are big. But what I’ve really liked is the way in which we’ve played. We’ve competed. The guys have bought into what our coaches are selling. We’re having fun working hard."