Habs hit century mark

Ross McKeon

File this under "too good to be true," "sappy endings," or "even Hollywood wouldn't buy this script." We're talking about how in the centennial celebration season for the NHL's most decorated franchise, the Montreal Canadiens win their 25th Stanley Cup.

That's right, the Le Club de Hockey Canadien, which predates the NHL by eight years, would love nothing better during a season of one celebration after another, to save the biggest and best party for last in early June.

Two years ago this kind of talk wouldn't even be heard. But considering how far the team came last season – winning its first division title since it was in the Adams Division, no less, and ruling the East as conference champs, too – maybe skating with the Cup at season's end isn't such an outlandish goal.

Some teams have made the adjustment to the new NHL's premium on speed and skill faster than others, and Montreal has literally grasped the concept. The Canadiens emerged as one of the fastest teams last season, and it translated to a potent attack that bodes well for the future.

Players such as Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn, Sergei Kostitsyn, Chris Higgins and Mike Komisarek are household names now in the proud province of Quebec, if not all over Canada, where the Canadiens are followed more intensely than any team in any city anywhere in the NHL.

Even veterans had eye-opening seasons. Enigmatic forward Alexei Kovalev rebounded from a sub-par season two years ago to lead the Habs in goals and points. Defenseman Andrei Markov is either a late-bloomer or proof positive the new NHL fits his game much better than the clutch-and-grab old one. During the first four seasons of his career before the lockout, Markov never managed more than 37 points and scored 24 or fewer three times. Since the ice has opened up with stricter enforcement of interference tactics on defense, Markov has not scored fewer than 46 points. Last year he posted career-high totals for goals (16), assists (42), points (58) and average ice time (24:58).

But the biggest reason for Montreal's optimism for now and long into the future is guarding that valuable 24-square-foot piece of real estate at each end of the ice – 21-year-old Carey Price. It's no secret that playing goal in Montreal is possibly the ultimate hot seat in pro sports. The scrutiny never ends, and there's no room or leeway for failure.

Besides having the physical attributes to be an outstanding puck-stopper, Price's greatest asset may be his mental toughness and competitive edge. Yes, he was ultimately overmatched in the second round of the playoffs last season against Philadelphia, and the handling of putting such a young and inexperienced individual in that position has to be questioned. But my guess is he'll learn from the experience and it will not scar him.

Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey must have had something go awry at the trade deadline when he surprisingly dealt veteran Cristobal Huet to Washington and didn't do anything else to fortify the position behind Price. You'd figure he would have at least taken a similar tact as San Jose or Calgary, teams that acquired Brian Boucher and Curtis Joseph, respectively, just to provide veteran insurance should the go-to starter run into trouble.

But Gainey did not opt for that route, instead letting a 20-year-old rookie and a 22-year-old backup in Jaroslav Halak (no previous postseason experience) lead a conference champ with legitimate Cup hopes into the playoffs. It backfired when the Flyers rattled Price in Game 3, Halak wasn't the answer in Game 4, and when a shaken Price was called upon again in Game 5, well, you know what happened.

Last season: 47-25-10, 104 points, first place Northeast Division, first in the Eastern Conference, third in the overall standings. After needing seven games to deny archrival Boston a first-round upset in a Nos. 1-8 matchup, the Canadiens fell to the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round, a best-of-seven series that lasted only five games.

Imports: LW Alex Tanguay (2007-08 team: Calgary Flames), C Robert Lang (Chicago Blackhawks), RW Georges Laraque (Pittsburgh Penguins), G Marc Denis (Tampa Bay Lightning), D Alex Henry (Nashville Predators), D Shawn Belle (Minnesota Wild), RW Mike Glumac (St. Louis Blues), RW Ryan Flinn (minors), C Yanick Lehoux (minors).

Exports: D Mark Streit (New York Islanders), RW Michael Ryder (Boston Bruins), C Bryan Smolinski (available free agent), C Mikhail Grabovski (Toronto Maple Leafs), C Corey Locke (Minnesota Wild).

Three keys to the season: The Canadiens can't assume they'll sneak up on anyone this year. The team will not only have to be mentally prepared for each game but ready to get challenged physically, too. My guess is teams will try to push Montreal around a bit, test its makeup to see if it can be thrown off of its game and Gainey has already tried to be proactive in that vein. He acquired well-traveled, yet well-respected enforcer Georges Laraque to ride shotgun wherever needed to let opponents know in advance there's someone to answer to wearing Le Bleu-Blanc-et-Rouge.

Second, Price showed it during a short span late, but he's going to have to prove from the outset he's ready to take the reins as No. 1 goalie in Montreal, and be able to handle everything that goes along with it. Don't think it's easy. Great ones have eventually succumbed to the ultra-bright spotlight – Patrick Roy and Jose Theodore, included.

Third, the new additions could really complement the core group with solid seasons. Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang should be able to boost an already potent offense without feeling like they have to do too much. Everyone else has to basically just play as well as they did last season, and really no one had unbelievable numbers so what's being asked is very realistic.

On the hot seat: Alex Kovalev is the key to the team, both on and off of the ice. Two years ago, the oft-moody Russian saw his offensive numbers dip to just 18 goals and 47 points, signaling to some his heart wasn't really in it anymore. Last season, following a reportedly no-nonsense chat with Gainey, Kovalev responded to score 35 goals and 84 points at age 35. It seems like how Kovalev goes, so go the Canadiens.

Poised to blossom: Guillaume Latendresse had heaps of expectations to deal with, being a nearby Ste. Catherine native and getting chosen 45th overall in 2005. He seems to have handled the over-hype well, and after near identical seasons for goals and points (16 and 29 in 2006-07 and 16-27last year), the 21-year-old may be ready to break out with an even bigger year, especially considering there is plenty of offense surrounding him and he's not being asked to take a big jump. That's how players are put in a position to succeed instead of one to fail.

Analysis and prediction: The real key will be how well the Canadiens play on defense. They lost an under-rated regular in Mark Streit and didn't replace him with experience. Everyone is a year older, Mike Komisarek has come into his own and there's a lot of hype surrounding 6-foot-5, 234-pound rookie Ryan O'Byrne. Unless things have dramatically changed in the offseason, and they haven't, teams can get away with a little less on the blue line than in the West, so here's to Montreal ruling the roost in the Northeast again and going at least one step further in the postseason.