NEW YORK — The clouds from last year — and even this past offseason — parted, and now there is a different vibe with the Montreal Canadiens.
A surprising 7-4-2 start is buoyed as much by the departure of Max Pacioretty and the constant questions and trade rumors that followed him a year ago as it is by the healthy return of Carey Price and addition of Max Domi.
But at the heart of it all is a shift in culture and attitude from a group of players embarrassed by a dismal 2017-18 campaign in which Montreal finished 14th out of 16 teams in the Eastern Conference with 71 points, the organization’s lowest non-lockout total since 1950-51 when the NHL only played 70 — not 82 — games.
“We went through what we went through last year and it wasn’t a lot of fun,” Canadiens’ alternate captain Brendan Gallagher told Sporting News. “There were a lot of guys in here that were a part of it, and those that weren’t came from places that didn’t have much success either.
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“So, I think everyone was just eager to win games, buy in to whatever it took. We had an attitude and a culture here last year that wasn’t going to lead to much success and wins, and that is something we wanted to change.”
That buy in Gallagher refers to is a consistent theme with the club this season. Starting in training camp and through a three-game winning streak in early October that pushed the team to a 4-1-1 start — and even during a current stretch of three losses in five games — the Canadiens have shown a unity and work ethic that was missing last season.
“We’ve had a pretty good buy in,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien, using that phrase again. “When we slip a little bit, it’s not because the buy in is not there, it’s more about bringing them back to doing the right things again to sustain the kind of play we want. The guys have been good at responding to that.”
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There’s been plenty of good, so far. Gallagher has nine goals, two off the league lead. Price is healthy, set to make his 11th start in 14 games Monday when the Habs face off with the New York Islanders at Barclays Center. Domi has fit right in, bringing jump and enthusiasm to the group, not to mention a team-high 13 points on a point-per-game rate, so far. Newcomer Tomas Tatar has a pair of three-point games already and is second on the club with 11 points. Jeff Petry plays more than 23 minutes a night on the back end and has ten points.
And this team comes to work. Hard. Every day. Practices. Games.
“That’s been big for our group this year, creating that culture — it’s a winning culture, but it’s everything that goes into winning, the hard work, creating accountability within the group,” explained Gallagher.
And the Canadiens have done this without their leader, their star defenseman, Shea Weber, who is slowly working his way back from offseason knee surgery — though the new captain’s fingerprints are all over this improved atmosphere.
“This is all stuff that Shea embodies,” offered Gallagher. “So, when he comes back, it’s only going to add to all that, and help create that culture even more.
“He’s definitely a big add on the ice with all his abilities, but what he brings to the group off the ice is just as important.”
Weber is on the current road trip to New York — where a game against the Rangers follows on Tuesday — but he is not close to returning to the lineup just yet. As Gallagher noted, Weber’s return will be a huge lift to a team that showed a few defensive cracks of late, allowing 12 goals in the past three games.
“The biggest thing is our play in neutral ice needs to get better, that’s where it starts,” stated Julien. “And some of our entries have not been great — but that’s more a coach nitpicking on stuff to make his team better.
“There are some areas there we need better commitment from a team standpoint in the neutral zone.”
Commitment is another form of buy in. And that doesn’t seem to be an issue in Montreal this season.