Habs: 'Happy, but not satisfied'

Yes, the Canadiens are serious playoff contenders. But are they overachieving or just playing like they can?

Updated: January 21, 2004, 1:52 AM ET
By Chris Stevenson | Special to ESPN.com

MONTREAL -- Jose Theodore treats questions about his play the same he treats pucks these days.

The Montreal Canadiens goaltender turns them aside without flinching.

Jose Theodore and Sheldon Souray
Sheldon Souray and Jose Theodore are both enjoying career years.
There is an arrogance there, a positive air of assurance. After an off-year (for him) last season and the offseason allegations of his family involvement in a loan-sharking operation which created sensational tabloid headlines in hockey-crazy Quebec, there were questions about how Theodore would bounce back, if he could bounce back.

He answers them every night now with his play.

"It's always up to the people around to decide for themselves," he told ESPN.com when asked if he was back in his 2002 form when he won the Hart and Vezina trophies and led the Canadiens to the playoffs for the first time in four years. "I know what I can do. Last year was a different situation, not the same system. I'm just feeling that this year I am playing the way I can. It's nothing special. It's the way I can play."

Theodore saw his goals against average jump from 2.11 to 2.89 last year and his save percentage fall from a league-best .931 to .908 -- all on the heels of him signing a three-year, $16.5-million contract before the start of last season and talk that his offseason routine was neglected in favor of the many off-ice opportunities that presented themselves with his burgeoning fame.

Last summer, he shrugged off the family controversy and rededicated himself to training. Now he's back among the league-leaders and is once again the key player in the Habs' resurgence this season. He's 13th in the league with a 2.05 goals against average and his save percentage of .927 ranks eighth.

Picked by many to finish in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference again, the Habs are legitimate participants in the playoff hunt.

Defenseman Patrice Brisebois, the only holdover from the Canadiens last Stanley Cup in 1993, said the Canadiens have turned the corner when it comes to attitude, thanks to Theodore.

"I think we realize we can play with the big teams," said Brisebois. "When we play Philadelphia or Toronto or Detroit we believe we have a chance to win and that's huge. Last year, when we faced the big teams, we knew it was going to be a tough night. Now we feel comfortable and ready for the challenge."

The biggest difference?

"The key is Jose in net," said Brisebois. "We know he'll make the difference. That's huge."

Theodore has been helped by the return of defenseman Sheldon Souray, who missed all of last season due to left wrist surgery. A key figure in the Canadiens upset of the top-seeded Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2002 playoffs, Souray has become a force at both ends of the rink, leading NHL defensemen in goals and earning praise as a bona fide Norris Trophy candidate.

Souray, whose 14 goals in 45 games this season is one more than he scored in his previous 287, can draw a parallel between his situation and Theodore's.

"Going through my injury has been part of a huge learning process, a maturing process," said Souray. "I don't think I'm doing anything I'm not capable of doing. More than anything, it's getting an opportunity. Jose had a great year when he got a chance when Jeff Hackett was hurt. Then Hack was traded and Jose showed he's capable of being a No. 1 (goaltender). Now he's playing like he did when he won the trophies. He's showing it wasn't a fluke."

The Habs are also playing a tighter defensive system under coach Claude Julien, who will celebrate his one-year anniversary as the Canadiens' coach Saturday. When Bob Gainey was hired as the Habs' new general manager during the offseason, there was speculation Julien would be let go at the first opportunity because he wasn't Gainey's hire.

But Julien has proven so far his success in junior hockey and the minors hasn't been a fluke, either.

The key is Jose in net. We know he'll make the difference. That's huge.
Patrice Brisebois, Canadiens defenseman
Despite the Canadiens' turnaround, Julien knows if the Habs don't make the playoffs, nothing the Canadiens have accomplished in the first half will matter.

"I have a t-shirt that someone in my family gave me. It says, 'Happy, but not satisfied,'" he said. "That sums up the way I feel. I think we're a tougher a team to play against. Even in the games we've lost, we've had a chance to win."

One of the significant moments to the Canadiens' season came in November.

Heading into the Heritage Classic on Nov. 22, the Canadiens were two games under .500 (8-10-1-1). They had a key meeting in Calgary. Julien let his assistants speak on several technical aspects of the game, particularly penalty killing. Then Julien laid down the law: be part of making the Canadiens a tougher team, or get out of the way.

The Canadiens won the Heritage Classic against the Edmonton Oilers. Since then they are 15-6-4-1.

With the backing of Gainey, Julien has instilled discipline both on and off the ice. The Habs are all business now. The slack atmosphere of previous coaching regimes has been replaced with structure and accountability. There's a dress code, a time when the TV and stereos have to be turned off in the dressing room on game day and the attitude if you aren't buying into the team concept, you aren't in the lineup.

Ask Andreas Dackell, Chad Kilger, Pierre Dagenais, Stephane Quintal, Niklas Sundstrom, Francis Bouillon, Mike Ribeiro, Michael Ryder, Joe Juneau and Yanic Perreault. All of them have been healthy scratches this year.

Ribeiro, a rookie, was sat down one night in early December after taking too long of a shift in overtime the game before. He was leading the team in scoring at the time. The Canadiens went out and beat the Tampa Bay Lightning without him.

Gainey bought out the contract of veteran winger Donald Audette, who wasn't producing.

"I see consistency in our play," said Gainey. "I don't see one trio or defense pair playing one way and another playing another way. That's the effect of the coaching staff."

They all entered the season with such uncertainty, all with unanswered questions hanging over their heads: Theodore, Souray and Julien.

And so far, the answers have been the right ones.

Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.