Canadiens: Montreal Looks Sharp Ahead of All-Star Break

It may not seem real, but the Montreal Canadiens are not only in the playoff picture but they’re looking like a formidable force in today’s NHL.

Looking at the roster or the goaltending or the deficiencies this season, the Habs probably shouldn’t be 26-17-5 ahead of Friday’s contest against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Yet here we are.

The Canadiens are very much in the hunt for a premium position in the post-season. They’re sitting just two points behind the Boston Bruins and three points behind the Maple Leafs. They’ve got three points up on the Buffalo Sabres, who are their own sort of formidable this season.

This is a fair shade away from where Montreal was at this point last season. If you don’t remember, they were bad. 20-22-6 bad. They staggered throughout the year and weren’t able to muster much of anything, coasting into the lower realms before the season ended.

Funnily enough, Montreal looks downright diffident in many statistical categories. They’ve got just a plus-four goals differential and even the Ottawa Senators have scored more. Their power play is terrible, the worst in the NHL at 12.9 percent at press time. That’s worse than the Flyers, Predators, Ducks, everyone.

Their defence isn’t even as good as it should be. They’ve allowed 142 goals against, making them the poorest of any playoff-bound Eastern Conference team in that category. They’re allowing a lot of shots against and that’s not going to be workable over the long haul.

Luckily, Carey Price and Antti Niemi have held them in it.

“The way we played our last two games, giving up I think 96 shots, we shouldn’t stand there and accept that,” head coach Claude Julien said. “We should be happy we won the games — and rightfully so…I think defensively our commitment hasn’t been as good as it needs to be and that’s where we need to improve.”

But they’re winners of three straight and seem to be doing things right in some departments, like during five-on-five play. When things are even, the Canadiens have the fourth-best possession numbers in the NHL. And they’re getting balanced scoring, with seven players set to pace 40 goals or more.

Right now, it’s a matter of piling up the points. Against Columbus Friday, that could be a thing.

The Blue Jackets are rolling, having won 11 of their last 15. They’re tied for the lead in the Metropolitan Division and will be hungry for anything that edges them over Washington.

The Habs will be without Paul Bryon, who was suspended three games for his hit on MacKenzie Weegar. That means Charles Hudon will probably slip into focus, as he was practicing with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia.

The Canadiens have every chance to keep proving they’re for real this season, that they belong in the conversation with the Maple Leafs and Bruins when it comes to playoff hockey. But they’ve also got a steep hill to climb, with more than a few rough edges to buff out.

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