The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Habs' first three weeks

Three weeks of the season (well, 2 1/2 ish but who's counting...) have come and gone, and I don't think anyone could have predicted the standings most of us find ourselves looking at with amazement on this Monday morning. While this blog will obviously be about the Habs woes and what we have to look forward to as well as what we will cringe at in upcoming games, here's a quick look at what the standings look like on this monday morning in each division, before a deeper look at the Canadiens:

ATLANTIC DIVISION

In the Eastern Conference, the somewhat surprising New York Rangers sit pretty at the top of the conference and their Atlantic division with a 7-1 record. Most thought they would be struggling to make the playoffs this year, and while that could still happen, I'd bet that most fans and people within the organization are happy with the best start in their franchise's history, and one hell of a seven game win streak. There are some good young players on that team, and their defense was tremendously underrated coming into the season.

Not surprisingly, the Penguins are tied with the Rangers in 4th place with 14 points and a 7-1 record, riding a 5 game win streak. Should be an interesting battle there as the season wears on. New Jersey is 4-3 in 7th place, around where most probably predicting them to be. Philly is struggling in 8th with a 3-2-1 record and on a 3 game slide. The Islanders are 0-3-3 and one of only two teams not to have won a game.

I still expect Pittsburgh to win the division, as I did at the beginning of the season. They're too strong in every position not to win the Atlantic. And while the Rangers are very impressive, their win streak is bound to end, and at that point, anything can happen with such a young team. Philly and New Jersey need to be better, and the Islanders ironically need to be worse, if they want Taylor Hall.

NORTHEAST DIVISION

Ottawa is leading the Northeast conference with a 5-2 record over the highly rated Boston Bruins (9th place with a 3-4 record), the Montreal Canadiens (with a dismal 2-5 record in 13th place... more on that later) and the Leafs hilarious 0-6-1, 15th place record. The Sabres are also surprising some with their 4-1-1 record, good for 5th in the east. However, the things that a healthy Ryan Miller can do shouldn't surprise anyone.

I don't think anyone predicted that the Bruins wouldn't be leading their division the entire year, and they'll start to roll sooner or later, however I'd bet the Sabres and Sens are starting to replace the Habs and Leafs in a lot of people's standing predictions. Ottawa is as deep as they've ever been since they joined the league. The Sabres are playing amazing hockey, thanks to Ryan Miller, and so long as he's between the pipes that trend should continue.

Montreal and Toronto need to turn things around, and in a bad way.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

It's no surprise that Washington is leading their division with a 4-2-2 record. Ovechkin is on pace for a hell of season but if they want to stay on top of their division, their goaltending is going to have to hold together. Easier said than done.

Atlanta is surpringly 6th in the east with a 4-1 record, but they've also played the least amount of games in the league (thanks a lot, senseless NHL schedule). We'll see more of them in the coming weeks, and whether they can keep up. Tampa bay (2-3-2, 10th place), Carolina (2-4-1, 11th place) and Florida (2-4, 12th place) bring up the rear. Carolina needs to be better, but again, that's easier said than done with Erik Cole out with an injury.

If the season ended now (and I know it doesn't) there would be a lot of angry fans in the east with some big market teams missing the playoffs. However we'd be treated to some interest playoff matches (NYR - Philly, Ottawa - Jersey, Washington - Atlanta and Pittsburgh - Buffalo).

How many of these teams will hold on to their playoff spots?

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NORTHWEST DIVISION

The very surprising Colorado Avalanche lead their divison and their CONFERENCE (!!!) with a 6-1-1 record and a four game win streak. We talked about them a little last week when they matched up against the Habs and how that team has a lot of underrated, hard working players. Calgary is close behind though, with a 5-2-1 record. Edmonton is in 6th place with a 4-2-1 record.

Out of the playoffs is Vancouver with a 3-4 record (13th place), but having won 3 of their last four, they should be in their way up the standings soon. Minnesota is dead last in the west having only won 1 game (and having lost 6, including 5 straight). They're certainly struggling with some of their off-season losses, especially that of Jacques Lemaire.

CENTRAL DIVISION

It's no surprise that Chicago leads the Central division with a 5-2-1 record, despite their goaltending leaving the rest of the team out to dry. Columbus is hot on their tail with their best start in franchise history (5-1, 5th place, 3 game win streak).

St. Louis is in 10th place with an OK 3-2-1 record, but Detroit is in a bad way with 3-3-1 record in 11th place. They've been outscored 22-25 and it's clear as day that they're missing a lot of goals with their off-season losses and the more recent loss of Johan Franzen.Something definitely needs to happen in Detroit. A lot of people were expecting them to drop their division crown to Chicago, but no one was expecting them to struggle like this, even this early in the season.

Nashville brings up the rear in 14th place with a 2-4-1 record, thanks to pourous goaltending (23 goals against) and inexistant offense (10 goals for). This is probably a little worse than people were expecting out of this team, seeing as Dan Ellis and Pekka Rinne were supposed to be two very good young goaltenders, not to mention guys like Ryan Suter and Shea Weber on defense.

PACIFIC DIVISION

Rounding out the surprising three conference leaders in the west is Phoenix with a 5-2 record. The most surprising thing is that they've only given up 10 goals in 7 games! Shows what a coaching change can do to a team, and what such an off-season controversy can do to motivate players to prove a lot of people wrong. Now we'll see if they can keep this up.

Dallas is in 7th place with a 3-1-3 record, and the Sharks, despite scoring a lot of goals, are underperforming with a 4-3-1 record in 8th place. Nabokov simply needs to be better, and with a long eastern-conference road trip coming up for the team, this is his perfect chance to get away with some stolen wins.

Los Angeles got off to an incredible start, but their goaltending is once again letting them down, having lost 3 straight and having slid all the way to 9th place with a 4-4 record. Anaheim is disappointingly in 12th place with a 3-4 record. Jonas Hiller has been pulled two games in a row and neither he nor Giguare has been able to claim the top goaltending spot on the team.

Once again this gives up some interesting and unexpected match-ups if the playoffs started today... Avs vs. Sharks, Hawks vs. Stars, Coyotes (!!!!) vs. Oilers (!), and the Flames vs. the BJ's.

Once again, we'll see how many of these teams can hold onto their early playoff spots...

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THE STRUGGLING MONTREAL CANADIENS

So now that we know where the rest of the teams stand (no pun intended) three weeks into the season, what's going on with the Canadiens? After two hard working wins against the Leafs and the Sabres, they've gone on to lose their next 5 games. Naturally their tilts against each western Canadian team weren't going to be their easiest match-ups, seeing as they never win in Western Canada, and the Avalanche and Senators have been more than impressive, as is indicative through the standings, but a five game losing streak is unacceptable from a team which should be working towards a playoff spot.

Yes, as the title says, it's only three weeks into the season, but this team has showed us a lot of bad things through their first seven games. And if these bad habits continue through the next 3 weeks of the seasons and thereon in, this team is going to find themselves in the basement of the league come playoff time.

It hasn't been all bad, though, and it could actually be worse. Imagine if the Leafs squeaked out a victory in that first game and actually managed to get on someone of a win streak (versus a losing streak) based on the confidence builder of winning your home opener? And imagine the Habs went on a losing streak like the Leafs did if they lost that game? Naturally, the Canadiens aren't that far off from where the Leafs are right now, but at least there's hope.

There are still four games in this six game homestand. The Thrashers are in town tomorrow night, and while they've looked more than impressive, you have to wonder whether or not they're already due for a breakdown. The Islanders are in town Thursday and again next Monday, and while they're actually due for a win, having gone 0-3-3, you have to wonder whether they can pull it off. The Rangers are in town on Saturday nigth and also due for some losses. The schedule gets tougher for the rest of October, with road games against Pittsburgh (next Wednesday) and an 8:30 game against Chicago on Friday, before a late flight back to town for a Halloween game against the Leafs.

How many games can the Habs win over the next 7 games? As I said, while there is hope, it's not looking too great..

Nevertheless, here are some positives, some negatives, and some ugly truths about the Habs coming out of the first 7 games, and going into the next 7:

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THE GOOD

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- While Mike Cammaleri only has 1 goal, he has a total of 5 points through 7 games and should add to that in the coming weeks. He also leads the team in shots with 26.

- Tomas Plekanec leads the team with 2 goals and 4 assists through seven games, after a summer of ridicule and total loss of confidence from the fan base. He's really proving that he can work hard, support the first line in scoring and play well in most aspects of the game. let's hope he can keep it up. Andrei Kostitsyn hasn't looked that bad alongside Plekanec these last few games, but it's not enough for him to deserve his own bullet point, not yet.

- Josh Gorges has been the Canadiens best defensive since the first game. He hasn't put up points since he had a 2 point night in the opever versus the Leafs, but he's a +2 playing with Hal Gill, he's blocked 19 shots and giveaway/takeaway numbers are good. Solid defensively, all he needs to do is add a little scoring touch in Markov's absense.

- Marc-André Bergeron. while he just got called up and he will make his debut on Tuesday against the Thrashers, he put up 6 points (six assists!) in 3 games with the Bulldogs and you can tell he's just itching to wear the red, white and blue tomorrow night. Hopefully he'll be just as good as he was with the Bulldogs.

- Travis Moen hasn't scored since he got three points in two games at the beginning of the season, he leads the team in hits with 17 (on pace for 200 on the year), and he doesn't give up the puck. He's not paid to score, so those 3 points in two games were a bonus.

- The Hamilton Bulldogs are 3-0-1 to start their season, and while they've lost their leading scorer in MAB, they still have Sergei Kostitsyn with 4 points in 3 games out to prove that he's above the AHL level the right way, Mathieu Darche and Tom Pyatt and Brock Trotter with 2 goals and an assist each through 4 games, and only 2 players with as minus players. Some of the players on this team might be a cause for hope for Habs fans through a long and arduous NHL season.

- Scott Gomez has been solid. 4 points in 7 games including a couple of ringers off the post that could have added to his 1 goal. The way he rushes up the ice from the defensive zone is more than impressive. He has played like a number one center early in the season and despite being a little smaller than most would like our number one center to be, he has been far from bad early this season.

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THE BAD

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- The rest of the defense. Paul Mara has been ok putting up 4 points in his first four games, not to mention 8 hits and 13 blocked shots, but he's a -5. While I like the fact that he's willing to just jump on a player that goes after another Hab, he looked like a fool trying to fight Kovalev saturday night. Spacek has also been ok with 6 hits and 14 blocked shots, but the offensive defenseman only has 2 points in games while leading all defensemen in ice-time. Hamrlik is close behind in ice time and has picked up some points in the last few games alongside Spacek, keeping a 0 +/- rating, but he hasn't been nearly as physical as we know he could be. He missed a lot of training camp, but he should be stepping up for Markov in his absense and he just isn't. Shawn Belle and Yannick Weber haven't been able to step in in that 6th role. While individually they haven't been that bad, not bad enough to be ugly, anyway, outside of Gill, as a whole they need to be better. A lot better.

- Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre have but a point each and are minus players. While they've been hitting and shooting, they do a lot of talking on the ice without backing it up, and they haven't been able to support the scoring lines. Two more players that just have to be better, without any excuses. They want to play together and they are playing together, now they need to prove why they should be playing together in Montreal and not in Hamilton with Sergei Kostitsyn.

- Brian Gionta has 3 goals and no assists this season. He should have more, and he should be more visible than he has been these last few games.

- The fourth line has been terrible defensively. Maybe it's the coaching staff asking too much of the likes of Kyle Chipchura (-6) and Georges Laraque (-4) and Greg Stewart (-20, etc, but those plus/minus figures need to be better considering how little they're on the ice. They're not expected to lead the team in scoring, but they shouldn't be giving up more goals than the first line is scoring. Georges Laraque needs to be more physically involved, but he's been good in the offensive zone.

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THE UGLY

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- Hal Gill. He just sucks so much. No points, -4 in 7 games, the lead in giveaways on the team with 9 and some pretty horrendous play in key situations. We all know that this is what we're going to get with Gill, but with Markov and O'Byrne injured, he just can't be playing that bad.

- The Canadiens are now something like 9 and 35 without the services of Andrei Markov, and 1 and 5 without him this season. It's tough to rest a team's success solely on the shoulders of one player, but Markov has that much of an effect on this team. He's that good, and he makes the players around him that much better. He's missed in every aspect of the game, and this can't be stressed enough.

- The Goaltending. While Halak was only given one game through seven and could be excused for his performance, there is no excuse for Price. He started off strong in the first two games and then disappeared. There is no excuse for a .886 percentage and a 3.36 GAA. he needs to be stealing games despite the lack of Markov and the porous defense. He needs to steal the next three games for this team, and if he doesn't, Martin needs to go back to Halak.

- The coaching staff has had me scratching my head so much that I'm starting to dig down to my skull. I don't know whether Perry Pearn or Kirk Muller are running the powerplay, but when you have nearly two minutes of a 5 on 3 powerplay, why does the team stick to perimiter point shots that get blocked THE ENTIRE POWERPLAY? When it doesn't work, adapt, look for openings in the slot and use your elite passers like Gomez to get it down to a player near the crease. Instead, they stay on the outside, allow the Sens to block most of their shots, and waste their best opportunity to put the game in the books. That, alongside with senseless in-game line juggling while they have the last change at home, among other things, have made me question the capacity of Jacques Martin as a head coach.

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While, as you can see, there's about as much good as bad, by the looks of it, the bad outweighs the good in this situation. The bad players have been worse than the good players have been good. Things just aren't going well for the team right now and I'm afraid to say that even more bad times seem to be ahead with a tough, compressed schedule.

Carey Price is going to need to stand on his head, and Josh Gorges and Roman Hamlrik are going to have to play the best hockey of their careers to make up for the deficiencies of their partners. A lot of players are going to need to step up defensively and everyone just has to be solid.

I don't know what needs to happen to accomplish this, but if they can't turn this around by the end of October, Gainey's going to have to start making some more moves, and that's going to look really bad on a GM that just put his neck on the line this past Summer tying up 18 million in 3 players who are going to be here until they're in their mid-thirties.

We've all said that it's just seven games, just 3 weeks, just one five game losing streak. But this team has to play with desperation, and they have to steal games they shouldn't be winning. Otherwise they're not going to win, not for a long time.

Back tomorrow with a Habs/Thrashers preview.

Have a good Monday,

Prax
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