Heading into Tuesday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Bell Centre (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio), the Canadiens have a 9-5-3 record.
Interestingly, the Canadiens had the exact same record after 17 games last season when they finished 44-30-8, coming up two points short of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Through Sunday’s games, the Canadiens were sitting in a playoff spot in third place in the Atlantic Division.
So, how is this year’s team different from last year’s?
“Wow! You guys got a lot of time on your hands to think about those questions,” coach Claude Julien said when asked that question after practice Monday in Brossard. “How is it different? I think it’s just more experience. I think we’re still trying to play the same way. We want to play quick, we want to use our speed, that kind of stuff. I think experience is a little bit deeper this year, even though we have some young players that have come in and we continue to kind of bring our team to the next level. We were able do to it with young players also.
“There’s an experience that was acquired last year in playing a certain way that is showing and, at the same time, we’re really trying,” the coach added. “We said that at the beginning of the year. We got to bring our team to the next level. Last year was a good year — 96 points — but it wasn’t good enough. So the big goal right now is to bring it to the next level so that at the end of the year it’s enough to get us in.”
The Canadiens’ biggest improvement so far this season has come on offence and the power play. Through Sunday’s games, the Canadiens ranked fourth in the NHL in offence, scoring an average of 3.53 goals per game, after ranking 13th last season with an average of 3.00. This season, they rank 12th on the power play at 21.4 per cent after ranking 30th last season at 13.2 per cent.
Defensively, the Canadiens have been worse than last season, ranking 20th in the NHL through Sunday’s games, allowing an average of 3.12 goals per game after ranking 13th last season at 2.88. The Canadiens’ penalty-killing now ranks 29th in the NHL at 72.2 per cent after ranking 12th last season at 80.9 per cent.
“We’re happy with the way we’re putting the puck in the net,” said Jonathan Drouin, who leads the Canadiens in scoring with 7-8-15 totals. “From the offensive side of it, I think we’re very excited that we’re up there in the league with goals created and goals scored. Obviously, our defensive side could be better and that’s the thing we really want to focus on these next couple of weeks. We just want to shut down a team when it becomes 2-1 or 3-1 … you want to shut them down and we’ve had trouble doing that a little bit.”
How does Drouin think this year’s team is different from last year?
“There’s new faces, young guys,” he said. “But it’s very similar to last year for me. It’s the same group, it’s the same mentality. We’re still a little mad about not making the playoffs last year. The new guys seem to be hungry at this point and they seem to enjoy it.
“I’ve said it many times, there’s a lot of good leaders,” Drouin added “Not only one, but a lot of veterans, a lot of leaders that say the right thing. They’re quiet and very calm and it’s good to have them.”
Max Domi said this year’s team is “pretty similar” to last year.
“Obviously, a couple of new faces and losing a guy like Shawzy is obviously different,” Domi said about Andrew Shaw, who was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks. “I sat next to Shawzy (in the dressing room) and I spent a lot of time with him, so it’s a big change for me, personally, but for the most part it’s the same sort of vibe.
“I miss him a lot,” Domi added about Shaw. “It’s tough. But it is what it is. I’m sure he’s happy in Chicago. I still keep in contact with him a lot and he’s doing well. He misses it here and he’s always cheering us on and watching our games, too.”