BROSSARD – The Canadiens spent the entire 2012-13 campaign proving people wrong and exceeding expectations. The bar has now been raised.
Coming off a disappointing 2011-12 season that saw the Habs finish last in the Eastern Conference in points and first in the league in man games lost to injury, the team bounced back in a big way this year. The road to rising to the top of the division started on May 2, when Marc Bergevin took the reins as general manager, introducing a top-down commitment to building a new culture based on a team concept. With Michel Therrien at the helm holding players accountable at every turn, the Canadiens successfully re-established themselves among the NHL’s elite.
“I really believe the most positive aspect was the culture change,” shared Josh Gorges, who has been with the Canadiens for six-and-a-half of his eight NHL seasons. “The accountability that everyone had and understanding that, especially in a city like Montreal, the expectation is to win. Anything less than that is not acceptable. We have a group in here of 25 guys who bought into that and really devoted themselves to a higher standard this year than we had in the past.”
Helping usher in the new-look Canadiens was the addition of heart-and-soul winger Brandon Prust over the offseason. Despite battling though a nagging shoulder injury for the last two months of the campaign, the gritty forward still managed to lead the Habs in fights and finish second on the team in hits, bringing some sandpaper, leadership and energy to the ice every night.
Providing a blueprint for the blue collar brand of hockey Therrien has been preaching since he returned behind the Habs bench, Prust was a catalyst in upping the compete level of a team known more for their speed than their size.
“Even if we’ve got some small guys, we’ve got some big hearts,” stressed Prust, who signed a four-year deal with the Canadiens last July. “There are areas you can get better and getting bigger isn’t a bad thing – you could always use some size – but it’s a new game now. You see Gally [Brendan Gallagher] and Gio [Brian Gionta] out there, and they’re small in stature but they battle their butts off.
“We showed we can battle hard. We took it to a lot of teams all year. With the things we did this year, we’ve set the bar high now,” he added. “That’s what you look forward to. We made some big steps this year and we proved to each other in here and to everybody else that we’ve got a great squad. The future is bright.”
With a mix of veteran leaders in guys like Gorges, Prust and Gionta combined with a solid young core that includes 19-year-old phenom Alex Galchenyuk, Calder Trophy candidate Brendan Gallagher, Norris Trophy nominee P.K. Subban, and three-time NHL All-Star Carey Price among others, the Habs have every reason to be optimistic moving forward. Heading into the offseason with a chip on their collective shoulders after an earlier exit than anticipated should only add fuel to that fire.
“I really liked the attitude we carried all season,” praised Price, who sprained his MCL at the end of Game 4 against Ottawa. “Obviously coming from where we were last year to where we end up this year is positive, but with the way it ended, it left a bad taste in our mouths. We’ll just have to use that as a motivation over the course of the summer to make bigger strides next year.”
Hitting the gym looking to erase bad memories and create better ones over the summer helped Subban come into the season ready to cement his status as one of the best blue-liners in the league. Showcasing the team-first attitude that helped the Habs skyrocket to the top of the division this year, the 23-year-old defenseman insists his own achievements are a by-product of the team’s collective performance.
“Any individual success anybody has on the team is [because of] the team. When your team goes from 15th place to second place in your conference, it’s not because of one player or two players; it’s about 22 or 23 guys coming together,” stressed Subban, who led all NHL defensemen with 26 power play points in 42 games. “We’ve done a great job all year of playing as a team. Everybody was on the same page. I can’t remember one time where guys were on their own page or thinking about themselves. Everybody was always thinking about the team and I think that’s why we had so much success this year.”
Despite finishing second in the East during what many experts predicted would be a rebuilding year for the Canadiens, no one in the Habs room is satisfied with the giant strides the team took this season. With the talent, character and leadership they have throughout the organization, the Canadiens know they’ve only scratched the surface of the potential they have as a group.
“We’re a team that’s going to continue to get better and I know Marc is going to do everything he can to make sure that this team is a team that’s going to progress and not take a step back,” described Subban. “They’re going to do everything in their power this offseason to make sure this team gets better and the same goes for the guys in this dressing room. Nobody should be going into the summer feeling comfortable and feeling like they have a position on this team, including me.
“This is the Montreal Canadiens; every year they try to win a championship,” he stressed. “Next year we’ll be coming in and the expectations will be even higher. Guys have to really take this summer seriously and come back ready to compete next year.”