Sixth place! Yup, I'm rubbing my eyes as I look at the standings, but that's right. Habs are sitting in sixth place. The team that was precariously perched on the playoff bubble three weeks ago is now jockeying for post-season position. How quickly things can change in a weird Eastern Conference. Fans aren't the only ones shaking their heads in wonder, though.
I watched Jaro Halak, he of the six-game winning streak, answering reporter's questions on RDS last night. I wasn't as interested in what he was saying as in his body language. He was looking down with a bemused half-grin, shaking his head at queries such as, "Why do you think shot totals have come down?" and "What do you think the team is doing differently?" While he dutifully gave the right answers, his face and body said, "What the hell am I supposed to say? We're doing all the same things we were trying to do all season, only now our lineup is better and it's working. I'm just amazed and thrilled."
Halak knows better than anyone that a team can do all the right things and still lose, or stink out the joint and steal a win. As a goalie, he pays his dues to the hockey gods in superstition and ritual, and he knows his fortunes are indivisible from those of his mates. So, he's the last one who'll say the shot totals are down because the forwards are moving their butts and getting back to help the D, or that Markov's return to health has meant less-good defencemen have to play fewer minutes than they did when he was out.
Halak won't tell the reporters a team with four hard-working, compatible lines will play better than one that depends on a single forward line for most of its scoring, while the bottom lines are composed of a handful of mismatched rookies, underachievers and all-around terrible players. Goalies believe in fate, and payback and Karma. They won't get too high for fear of dropping too low to make up for it.
There are good reasons for the turnaround, though, even if Halak won't point fingers. The two most important are good health and better role players. Most teams that have had the problems the injury problems the Habs have had this year, like the Oilers, are out of the playoffs already. The mighty Red Wings are on the bubble in the West because they've had so many players hurt. The Habs have managed to hold their own and will only get stronger with injuries behind them.
As important as a healthy lineup is the revamped bottom-six. Think about who they were on opening night: Max Pacioretty, Moen, Metropolit, D'Agostini, Laraque and Lapierre, with a side of Kyle Chipchura. Right now, Sergei Kostitysn is better than Pacioretty, Darche is better than D'Agostini and Moore is light years better than Laraque. Metro is better at centre than Lapierre. There's no comparison in the quality of the players on those lines between October and last night. As a result, no line is playing less than five minutes a game. The drop off in ability between the first and third line isn't nearly as marked as it was early on. Balanced ice time menas better-rested players and more energy late in games when a team is trying to hold a one-goal lead.
Last night was the kind of game that makes you secretly worry the team is peaking too soon. Even though it should improve up front with Cammalleri's return, it's hard to picture a team that plays an overall better game than they did in New York. The Habs won their battles on the boards, they hit, they skated and they played a solid defensive game. They could, perhaps, have done a better job of burying some of the glorious chances their hard work created, but that's where Cammalleri will come in. The result for the team is another W. For the fans, it's pure fun. I didn't think the Habs would be fun again this year, but they are, and it's just great.
Among the fun highlights for me last night:
-Jaro Spacek. He's playing a smart, solid game on the blueline, and proving why experience is vital at this time of year.
-The PK, which just suffocated the Rangers' PP. Gaborik looked like Laraque against it.
-Andrei Markov. When he's healthy, he's beautiful to watch. His puck control and passing are mesmerizing, and his shot can do some damage too.
-Sergei Kostitsyn. I don't know what happened to him, but wow, he's playing some good hockey!
-Dominic Moore. I'm officially retracting my concerns about the second-rounder in 2011 it cost to get him because I believe the improvement of the bottom six is largely due to his arrival, and said improvement is largely responsible for getting the Habs into the playoffs. Playoffs is worth a second in a reportedly weak draft. It's just too bad there won't be enough money to re-sign him.
-Glen Metropolit. Mathieu Darche has been jokingly calling him the "Wayne Gretzky of the fourth line." He's not far off. Sixteen goals, ten on the PP, from a fourth-line centre leaves any previous expectations in the dust.
-The confidence. We're seeing a relaxed team that doesn't panic when the opponent pushes. Confidence gives players that extra second to make a good pass instead of rushing a bad one. It lets forwards trust their defencemen to get the puck up to them and defencemen trust their goalie to make the stops. When a team is confident, every player knows his role and plays within it. That's winning hockey, and that breeds more confidence.
So, all of this good stuff adds up to sixth place, one point behind the fifth-place Sens. While it's true the Sens and Flyers have games in hand, they're not playing the kind of hockey the Habs are right now. We've got eleven games left to see how high our team can fly.