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Jack Todd: Good, bad or ugly, Canadiens hang their skates on speed

Penguins’ Jake Guentzel cannot get a shot past Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price in the second period in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.

Gene J. Puskar / AP

Two games into a season that is still in diapers, this swift, fuzzy-cheeked edition of les Canadiens is on its way to its first significant accomplishment: Rekindling the love affair with the Habs that has been so much a part of this city for more than 100 years.

Mind you, it won’t be easy. Elements of this acrimonious, embittered fan base, egged on by obsessed fanatics on social media and elsewhere, will never be won over. They hate Marc Bergevin, they despise Geoff Molson and damned if they’re going to let truth in the form of an improved young squad get in the way.

Ah, well. Leave them to mutter into their beer. Good, bad or indifferent, the Canadiens are fun again. It was plain during the preseason. It’s more obvious now, after road games against two of the league’s powerhouses, Toronto and Pittsburgh. Win, lose or draw you are back into the game, these guys are entertaining. Pretty good, too.

The first game should have been a win, but turned into an OT loss to the Leafs. The second was a dominant performance against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company.

Granted, the Penguins were moderately awful. The Canadiens still had to take advantage of their mistakes. They did so with style, finesse and speed, speed, speed. Squint a little watching these Habs and it’s not too hard to imagine the Roadrunner and the Pocket Rocket are zipping around the ice.

If it took Bergevin a while to recognize the up-tempo shift across the league, he has been making rapid strides to catch up. Head coach Claude Julien has adapted rapidly, shifting to a high-speed, relentless forecheck that punishes mistakes.

You have to have wheels to make it work and the Canadiens have all the quickness they need — beginning with Paul Byron. Within minutes of the announcement during camp that Byron had signed a four-year, $13.6-million contract extension, a would-be journalist working the web announced the signing was a good thing, because now the Canadiens could trade the man.

Seriously? Byron might narrowly lose a rink-length race against Connor McDavid, but in the 5- to 30-foot dashes that decide who gets the puck and who gets to the goaltender first, I’ll put Byron up against anyone in the league. If you’re going to build around speed, lay the foundation around Byron.

Against the Penguins, Byron alone outplayed Crosby and Malkin. He was supersonic, so quick he could hit the light switch and be under the covers before it got dark. Two goals and a beauty assist on a backhand pass to a streaking Joel Armia for a shorthander.

Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin, right, works the puck in the corner with Montreal Canadiens’ Jeff Petry defending in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.

Gene J. Puskar /


So what would you rather have? A constantly involved, pesky speed merchant who will give you everything he has for $3.4 million a year — or Max Pacioretty at $7 million per, sticking to the perimeter and hoping for the occasional crack at the net?

Given a similar choice, Max Domi or Alex Galchenyuk, the choice is equally obvious. The sucker punch is forgotten: Domi is in the middle of everything. He skates, he has good vision on the ice, he knows where he needs to be and he gets there in a hurry, he backs down to no one. It’s not about who scores the most goals, it’s about who makes his team better. Domi does. Galchenyuk might, when he’s in the mood.

Let Galchenyuk enjoy life while skating aimless circles in the desert; Montreal is going to love Max Domi.

It was clear even before the season began that Bergevin was well on his way to repairing the problems at centre ice. What is more surprising is the young defence, now working with Luke Richardson.

Victor Mete is all of 20, Noah Juulsen 21. Mike Reilly and Xavier Ouellet are relative greybeards at 25 and 19-year-old Josh Brook is waiting in the wings. If you’re going to go up-tempo, they’re what you need — and so far this season, they have been terrific individually and as a group while facing two of the most high-powered offensive juggernauts in the league. The popular wisdom was that they would have to hang on by their fingernails until Shea Weber returns in mid-December; the early return is, the young guns have got this.

And it doesn’t hurt that behind them, No. 31 would appear to be his old self again. Carey Price is back, but he hasn’t had to carry this team. Almost everyone is pulling his weight.

So maybe we can do without the constant carping. Stow the fake-news narrative that says the Canadiens collapsed the day they traded the exalted P.K. Subban, a fiction that ignores the truth: They were awful in Subban’s last season with the club, good enough in their first season with Shea Weber to win their tough division by five points. None of what has happened since is down to Subban’s absence.

So please. Stop whining. You’ve got a fleet-footed young bunch out there. You have Jesperi Kotkaniemi at 18, looking more like he belongs with every shift. You have the superbly entertaining Byron, Domi and Brendan Gallagher.

Sit back and enjoy. That’s what it’s supposed to be about, right?

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