Bartlett: Canadiens showing signs of changing identity

John Bartlett
3/24/2012 12:35:09 PM
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Despite the woes the Montreal Canadiens have faced this year, they still have managed some bright spots to wow their fans through the course of the season. Last night was Erik Cole's turn to play superhero on home ice. And while Cole was an immense part of the Habs 5-1 win over the Senators, the fact that this team's identity has started to change, certainly cannot be overlooked.

Cole has been a heart and soul player all season long for Montreal, and has easily become a fan favourite for his work ethic, his physical play and willingness to drive the goal. There have only been 10 games this year where he has not recorded at least one hit in the game. For him to match a career-high tying mark of 30 goals in the season on home ice would have been a nice touch. Instead, he did it in style with a natural hat-trick, and set a new franchise record for fastest hat-trick to open a game. In fact, the last time a Habs player scored a hat-trick in the first period was back on February 27, 1993 when Brian Bellows accomplished the feat.

Cole's marker and big night can be added to a list of bright spots for the Canadiens this year, such as Lars Eller's four-goal night, Max Pacioretty's 30-goal season, the emergence of Alexei Emelin and some of his highlight reel hits, the return of Andrei Markov and the arrival of a physical brand of hockey.

The latter is what has some fans excited. There seemingly is a change in attitude with the team that now has some sandpaper to its game, with a group willing to stand up for each other. Last night's game against the Senators marked the fifth straight game where the Canadiens were involved in an altercation. They also have now earned points in seven of the last eight contests.

There have been 22 games this year where the Habs have been involved in a fight, in which they sport an 11-8-3 record. Four times they have been involved in more than one altercation in the game, where they are 2-2. Nine of those 22 games have come since the trade deadline, which also coincides with the arrival of Brad Staubitz and the healthy return to the lineup of Ryan White.

As head coach Randy Cunneyworth has said, it's not about the team looking for trouble, and it's not all about one guy. It's about the team sticking together as a group to defend and protect each other. It just makes it a lot easier when they band together with players like White and Staubitz on their side.

A case in point was last night's game against Ottawa where the Habs built up a 4-0 lead, and the Senators tried to battle their way back in the game, with players such as Chris Neil and Zenon Konopka trying to lead the charge for their troops. Yet, after every whistle and scrum around the Habs net, there were five red sweaters quick to swarm in and defend the team. Carey Price doesn't seem to get bumped around in the crease nearly as much as he was in the first half of the season either.

Add in the physical play of Emelin and even P.K. Subban picking his spots for laying out some big hits, and the team becomes tougher to play against. Mike Blunden has also shown some strong play in that department.

With seven games remaining in the season, the Canadiens are playing for next year, but as is evident are still willing to battle under Cunneyworth. Since the turn of the calendar to 2012, the team is 15-15-6. And if Ottawa is to be an example of how to turn things around in one season, this time last year, it was the Senators sitting in 15th spot, while the Habs were holding 6th.

Tonight's game against the Flyers in Philadelphia will be an interesting matchup, as Philly looks to clinch their playoff spot and it remains to be seen if the Habs can find that same emotional level against a squad they haven't played since December 15th, compared to their division rival and three games in 10 days.

It also sets the table for an interesting off-season for the Canadiens, who need to address their issues, but also must see the results of being team-tough and having an appropriate supporting cast to assist. Only time will tell if this is a full-time identity change, or a rugged team scrapping out the stretch.

One thing is for sure, with players like Cole having the season he has, and a night like last night to celebrate it, there are certainly reasons for Habs fans to be positive about the future, as the potential to be back in the mix next season in the East is there.

You can follow me on Twitter @BartsBytes

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