Last year I was very optimistic about the Montreal Canadiens. This year I was more cautiously optimistic about their chances. Then they traded Mike Ribeiro. I feel that as long as Saku Koivu can stay healthy, the Canadiens are a playoff team. Allow me to explain why.
Perhaps the biggest question mark entering the season for the Canadiens. Can Cristobal Huet repeat his performances from a year ago? Let me say something to all of the naysayers. he doesn’t have to. Huet does not have to be spectacular for this team to make the playoffs. He simply has to be good. Last year the team had two months of the worst goaltending ever from Jose Theodore. Once Huet stepped in he had to be great. All the Canadiens need this season is a happy medium. Now, Pierre McGuire says that every team knows how to score on Huet right now. He said that just before the playoffs, and the Hurricanes didn’t exactly light the lamp very often.
In David Aebischer, the Canadiens have a legitimate backup, maybe even a 1a 1b situation. I think that Aebischer will play in at least 35 games this season, and that the two goalies will push each other. Individually, they might not be the best goaltenders in the league, but as a 1-2 tandem, they are probably one of the best in the league.
This, at one time during the pre-season, was a question of who is going to play. With Francis Bouillon and Jean-Phillipe Cote both out for a while, it seemed that the seventh defenceman in Montreal would be a default. and then Patrick Traverse came, and it turned out even worse. But, when the Canadiens traded Ribeiro for Janne Niinimaa, it posed the question of who was going to play. Mark Streit had an unbelievable pre-season, but will probably be the odd-man out. If not him, then Mathieu Dandenault, who has been bothered by injuries so far. Yes, I am a realist and know that the Canadiens do not have the best defence in the league. By far. Andrei Markov is a top-two defenceman on any team, but the rest of the Habs, Sheldon Souray, Craig Rivet, Mike Komisarek, Streit, Dandenault and Niinimaa are more of the number-four defenceman type. But, again, as a whole, the defence is solid. The Canadiens do not have a liability on defence, no matter who they put on the ice. The problem is they don’t have an imposing defenceman who will change the game in their favour. But, at least they don’t have Patrice Brisebois anymore. Or have a need for Traverse.
I’ve said this for a while now. the Canadiens are as good 1-12 as any team in the league, but if any of the 12 go down, they may be in trouble.
Their top line of Sergei Samsonov, Tomas Plekanec and Alex Kovalev is solid offensively and defensively, and should be much better than anything the team had last year with Ribeiro and Richard Zednik. Saku Koivu, Chris Higgins and Michael Ryder are the second unit for the Habs, and if they play this season like they did at the end of last year, they will be looking very good, and you could chalk up 30 goals for both Higgins and Ryder.
The third line has Steve Begin centering Mike Johnson and Guillaume Latendresse. This line is good enough to shut down any line of the opposition, and will absolutely surprise people with how much they will score. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this line put up 60 points each if they spend the entire season healthy.
The fourth line has Radek Bonk with Garth Murray and Alexander Perezhogin. Again, this is a line that can shut down opposing forwards and score a little bit as well. If Bonk plays like he did at the end of last season, and in the playoffs, it will be a solid line. Aaron Downey, the 13th forward will be put in games where there is an emphasis on defensive play, or toughness, and will fill in for Perezhogin.
If any of the forwards go down, it won’t be pretty. The Canadiens have Andrei Kastitsyn, who had a great preseason and almost made the team, in Hamilton and he will be the first forward to get the call if there is an injury. The Canadiens will probably keep 13 forwards instead of the 14 they are allowed, because they want Kastitsyn to play in the AHL instead of sitting in the press box. Maxim Lapierre, Eric Manlow and Kyle Chipchura could be called up in the case of multiple injuries.
This team is much better than last year’s version. If they can get solid goaltending from Cristobal Huet and remain relatively healthy, it will go a long way to them making the playoffs. However, if the injury bug hits, they are not deep enough on the blue line, or on their top-two lines to make the playoffs.