BROSSARD – Hockey is a young man’s game, but the Habs’ superior experience has been a key to their success so far this spring.
Recent studies conducted by hockey statisticians have concluded that NHL players hit their peak offensive years even sooner than one would previously have assumed. Considering the following: a typical forward in today’s National Hockey League is drafted at age 18, enters the league before age 22 and peaks in point-per-game at the age of 25 – two full years before reaching free agency.
In this year’s first-round series, the Tampa Bay Lightning iced a young, dynamic lineup with an average age a shade over 25. Meanwhile, the Canadiens came into the postseason with a significantly older staff, one where the average age is just shy of 29. Through the first two games, however, the Canadiens’ player have managed to use their experience to trump the Tampa kids, out-scoring Steven Stamkos and company nine to five en route to a two-love series lead.
“We have a mix of young players and battled-hardened veterans who have a lot of experience. Their leadership is very important to us being able to execute our gameplan,” offered head coach Michel Therrien, whose team is led in scoring by a line formed by 24 year-old Lars Eller and old guards Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta. “It’s a good atmosphere and it’s a lot of fun to coach these guys. The team spirit is really strong and everyone realises that we are at our best when we play as a team.”
Tampa Bay only boasts two 30-and-over players in their lineup, defensemen Sami Salo and Eric Brewer. Through two games, they have combined for zero points, three shots and a minus-three rating. Meanwhile, the Canadiens’ old boys club, represented throughout the roster, has been doing the bulk of the heavy lifting for Montreal. Francis Bouillon, Daniel Briere, Andrei Markov, Brian Gionta, Mike Weaver, Rene Bourque, Tomas Plekanec and Thomas Vanek have accounted for five goals and nine of the team’s 23 total points.
“This is moment for us to show our potential,” stated Rene Bourque, who scored two goals in Game Two to lead the Habs to a convincing 4-1 triumph. Though he has not performed up to his own expectations in the regular season, Bourque does have four goals in his last seven postseason appearances. “Everybody wants to be at the top of their games in the playoffs. I want to be better, more consistent, and help the team win.”
Bourque’s coach, for his part, likes what he has seen from the Alberta native so far this spring.
“Rene Bourque is playing the way we expect him to play. You can’t judge a player’s contribution just with goals and assists. It’s nice when he’s got them, but Rene is doing other things to help the team too. I really like how he’s engaged, physical and going hard to the net,” acknowledged Therrien, who has given his third-line left winger a minute more in ice time per game in the playoffs than in the regular season. In Bourque, Eller and Gionta, Therrien has found a line which can play hard minutes and score in a pinch.
“We complement each other well. Bourque is a big guy who skates extremely well, same with Eller. He’s a strong power forward who opens up space out there,” related captain Brian Gionta, 35. Through he has been bumped from his team’s powerplay unit in favour of 30 year-old Thomas Vanek, the former Olympian from Rochester is still a go-to guy for the Canadiens at even strength and on the penalty kill. Frequently playing north of 20 minutes per game in playoff series past, the right-winger is still the fourth busiest forward on his team with 18:38 of ice time per game in this series. Going forward, his skill and experience will be an important asset if the Habs are to close out their division rivals.
“It’s good that we are up two games, but we fell into that trap against Boston a few years ago, winning two games in their building and then letting off the gas once we got back. We need to make sure that we stick to what worked in the first two games,” Gionta insisted. “The Lightning is going to make adjustments, so we need to work to counter them. We need to read what they’re going to do and to make necessary changes on the fly.”
With at least one proven playoff warrior on each of his forward and defensive units, Michel Therrien is confident about his team’s chances.
“We have a business-like attitude and we are focused on what we can do today to be ready for the next game. I like the concentration and determination level of our team. In the playoffs, each game is harder to win than the last, so having the right attitude is a must,” the Habs’ coach concluded.
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.
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