With a 3-1 win against the division rival Tampa Bay Lightning last night, the Montreal Canadiens set the new standard for a team that starts the season off strong. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Montreal Canadiens are the first team in NHL history to win at least seven of their first eight games in three consecutive seasons. This seasons’s Habs squad is off to a 7-0-1 start, while many will remember that last year’s team won nine straight to open the season, and the 2014-15 team got out to a 7-1 record.
A hot start is invaluable, especially in a sport as physical as hockey where injuries become more common and more taxing as the year goes on. Coach Michel Therrien, who seems to end each season on the hot seat despite beginning each season so well, deserves a lot of credit for Montreal’s strong October play. However, seven wins in eight games can only do so much over an 82-game schedule, and how Therrien manages the team later in the season is what has been much-maligned.
In 2014-15, there were only a few lapses in play over the course of the season, and it’s hard to argue that they made a difference. The team won 16 of their first 22 games before dropping six of seven in late November and early December. However, the team bounced back, winning nine of ten, and continued to excel through the winter. In March, the Habs lost six of eight to begin the month and five of six to end the month, heading into April. Because of this collapse, the team finished three points shy of the New York Rangers for the President’s Trophy. 110 points and an Atlantic Division title wasn’t a bad consolation prize though. Where Therrien received criticism was the noticeable drop-off in play between Montreal’s strong regular season stretches and their postseason performance. Montreal beat the Ottawa Senators in the first round, 4-2, but the Sens put up a better fight than many expected. The Canadiens then fell to the eventual Eastern Conference champs, the Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-2 in the second round. Whether or not Montreal had pulled together some late-season wins and taken the top seed in the East, they still would have lost to the Lightning. A strong start in 2014-15 meant nothing without a strong finish.
In 2015-16, things went very differently. The league-leading Canadiens lost superstar goalie Carey Price to injury early in the season, and the 19 wins in their first 25 games were quickly erased. Price was expected to return from injury in one to two months. His last game of the season ended up being November 25th. Without Price, Montreal became a completely different team, and Therrien took the brunt of the hit. The Habs won just five of their next 27 games and were outside the playoff picture faster than they had climbed to the top of it. Montreal settled into .500 hockey for the remainder of the season, finishing with 82 points and sixth place in the Atlantic Division. Their hot start simply went could without Price in net, and the team was unable to ever get the fire going again.
As excited as Canadiens fans are right now, the message in all this is that a record-setting team over the last two seasons have turned their early-season success into a disappointing playoff exit and a complete collapse. While Therrien is very much off the hot seat right at this time, his job now is to find a way to keep this strong play going. If the Habs can become a more consistent team in 2016-17, one that is ready to deal with injuries (Price has already missed time) and capable of playing in April and May like they play in October, then Montreal is a real contender this season. Until that is proven, this hot start is just a statistical anomaly that has played out over the past few seasons, but holds no real weight.