The experts didn’t believe it was possible. The players admit that they didn’t believe it. We, the fans, didn’t believe it. Even those among us who were certain this team was better than the preseason prophesies suggested, we never believed they would be in first place. Eighth place? Easily. Fourth place? Possibly. But first? Ahead of the Senators, the Sabres, the Rangers, the Flyers, the Penguins, the Devils? Ours was a roster of (supposedly) inexperienced children and (supposedly) over-the-hill veterans, not a peak star amongst them in the conference of Crosby, Ovechkin, Lecavalier, Heatley, Briere, Kovalchuk, Jokinen. We, the faithful, expected them to hang on, stay competitive by sheer force of will the way they sometimes did last year. We expected a deeply flawed, streaky, contentious team. Yet here we are. Tonight Koivu reflected that he had never before been in first place this late in the season, which drives home the point: this is the best Canadiens team in a decade or more. They’ve been good, they’ve been lucky, and the omens are rapidly aligning in their favor. Their lead is tenuous and there are still plenty of teams who can and will give them difficulties in the remaining 16 games and beyond, but still… first place. It feels wonderful.
1. We beat them in their building, and then we beat them in ours- the New Jersey Curse has not only been broken, but shattered and recycled into beer bottles. I still think it’s one of the most auspicious signs of the Habs’ transformation this year, that they got over the dire certainty that they’d die in the Devils’ trap every time. It’s fitting that they took their position as Eastern Conference leaders quite literally over the prone body of Martin Brodeur.
2. I originally called him ‘Kostitsyn al-Akbar’ with the intended meaning of ‘Kostitsyn the Elder’, to distinguish him from his younger brother. But now I think he deserves the more elevated connotations of the title as well. Of all the Habs’ youth, he seems to be developing the fastest, having lost virtually all of that rookie skittishness and transformed into Kovalev’s mirror on the other wing. Doubtless he’s not all there yet, but you have to be impressed with the calm assurance of his play these days- if you didn’t know in advance, I don’t think anyone would take him for one of the Habs’ least NHL-experienced players based on his performance. A game-winning goal never looked better.
3. O’Byrne is an interesting kid. More than any other Habs defensemen, he has a real tendency to cover opposition players as if he was their evil conjoined twin. He doesn’t seem to play a positional style of covering the angles, as many of our other D do (possibly because that is how they’re coached to defend, rather than due to natural inclination). True, Komisarek relishes the opportunity to violate guys’ personal space bubbles (see: Jagr), but O’Byrne cleaves so tightly to them for so long that I’m expecting him to get slapped with a paternity suit before the season’s out. Still, I wonder if this would cost him more dearly if he wasn’t playing with Hamrlik, who is a supremely efficient hockey-geometer.
4. Although the one goal he let in was the textbook definition of ‘rookie mistake’, Price had another very solid outing. I remember games the Habs have lost in the past, people would talk about how while the Canadiens got shots, they didn’t get many good scoring opportunities because the opposition did a good job of keeping them to the perimeter. In these recent games, I think the skaters have been doing that for Price. It’s a tough position he’s in, and it’s good to see the team doing everything it can to help him succeed- and vice versa.
The Habs’ next series of games is their Great Pacific Road Trip, which now takes on a very different coloring than it once had. They will play, among others, the Ducks and the Sharks, two of the elite teams of the (hypothetically) superior West, and those games will mean more than your standard out-of-conference match. Our Montreal Canadiens have taken the East, here at home we will be watching those games closely for inklings of how they might fare against the West. They’ll play us hard, in