First-place Montreal Canadiens happy, but also wary

Goalie guru Stéphane Waite was talking about his protege, Montreal Canadiens netminder Carey Price, but the thought applies more generally: Success is fragile, so it’s best to focus on the now.

The Habs’ fortunes feel less shaky than a year ago, precisely because Price’s various ligaments are firmly attached to the right places and in the correct number of pieces.

But this is a club that refuses to bask in the fact it is the best team in hockey.

The Habs’ record of 19-6-4 is exemplary, particularly given the recent injury to first-line centre Alex Galchenyuk – a lower-body issue likely involving more of those dreaded leg ligaments.

It’s easy to forget, as they prepare to face the San Jose Sharks at the Bell Centre in a mid-December weekday game, that a year ago they were in an almost identical situation: 20-8-3, just three points off the overall lead.

Except the bus was already sliding inexorably toward the ditch, where it would eventually tumble most of the way to the bottom and burst into flames.

True, Price had gone out with a week-to-week injury by then, but they largely dominated the Sharks. They ultimately lost, heroically. It wouldn’t be the last time.

Has last year’s dolorous December made them suspicious of everything-is-awesome vibes?

“I don’t know if ‘suspicious’ is the right word. I think we’ve learned from [last year]. We have an understanding – we can’t feel too good about ourselves,” said winger Brendan Gallagher.

Since Waite came over from Chicago four years ago, he has hammered away at Price with one mantra: Prepare only for the task at hand, dedicate yourself entirely to the game ahead, worry only about the next shot.

And Price has adhered to it scrupulously – “that consistency may be the most impressive thing about him,” said Waite.

Price is the team’s emotional leader – not even captain Max Pacioretty would quibble with that assertion – so perhaps it’s no accident that his mindset is rubbing off on the rest of the team.

“I think so far this year we’ve done a good job of having that mentality. But it’s still really early,” said Gallagher.

All professional athletes will tell you complacency is the enemy. The Habs have expended considerable energy to make sure it doesn’t take up residence in their room.

Defenceman Jeff Petry said the key is to remember there is a difference between being pleased and being satisfied.

“We have to keep the vibe in here the way it is. I think everyone’s happy with the way we’re playing for the most part, but we can’t get complacent by any means,” Petry said.

The key, he continued, is putting in work. It’s what has allowed the Habs to generally avoid slow starts.

“There are going to be times when things aren’t going well … what we’ve done lately is use our speed,” he said.

The Habs have lost more games than they’ve won in the past month (6-6-2) but, paradoxically, have mostly played better hockey – not as contingent on Hall of Fame-level goaltending – than they did in the early season; their underlying statistics have improved, with possession indicators suggesting they may actually be an elite team.

Though Price is the player the Habs can least afford to lose, Galchenyuk and fellow centre David Desharnais could test that premise over the next six to eight weeks. In addition to facing Stanley Cup finalist San Jose on Friday, the Habs will play league powers Washington, Anaheim, Minnesota and Columbus between now and Christmas.

The good news is that this year’s Habs are armed with secondary offensive weapons such as Alex Radulov, who looks like the club’s best-ever free agent signing, and the speedy Paul Byron, who at 10 goals is already within one of his career high. The Ottawa native is in the conversation for best waiver-wire pickup of the past decade.

But you can’t win without goals, and if the Habs are to offset their shortcomings down the middle, they need to sort out their power play.

Montreal has scored just one five-on-four goal since Galchenyuk went down in Los Angeles on Dec. 4.

In fairness, the man-advantage had been wobbly before then, limping along at a mediocre 14 per cent (7-for-48) in the past 15 games.

Teams have figured out that maybe it’s a good idea to cover Shea Weber, he of the vicious slapper from the point – “the best shot in the NHL,” according to Habs coach Michel Therrien.

Irony of ironies: Associate coach Kirk Muller was brought in to help fix a power play that previously hinged on P.K. Subban, who was swapped for Weber in the off-season.

Some problems are tougher to crack than others, it seems.

On Thursday, Therrien had Weber paired with fellow righty Petry on the first power-play unit. The second wave featured Byron taking charge of zone entries, and centre Phillip Danault with Gallagher.

“Our pace at five on five has been good, but it goes down on the power play. We need to change that,” Therrien said.

There is still much to tinker with. Given the prevailing attitude in the room, Therrien probably doesn’t need to remind his charges to get to work.

Article Written by Sean Gordon of The Globe and Mail. Follow Sean on Twitter.