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NHL PREVIEW:Habs face higher expectations after run to Eastern Conference final

10/05/2014 10:00 EDT | Updated 12/05/2014 05:59 EST
MONTREAL - A surprise run to the NHL Eastern Conference final made for a heady spring for the Montreal Canadiens, but now comes the more difficult task of repeating that success.

Expectations have been raised for the team that many feel is the best bet among the seven Canadian-based clubs to reach the Stanley Cup final and perhaps even to end the 21-year drought since Montreal last won the Cup in 1993.

Max Pacioretty, coming off a breakout 39-goal campaign, knows it won't be easy.

"It was nice and it's good to have some success, but you've seen so many times where a team goes far and then has a down year," the winger said this week. "We can't sit back and think we deserve wins when you know you have to work for every win in this league.

"If anything, it might be a little harder on us having a bit of a target on our backs, especially against a couple of teams we played in the playoffs. But great players and great teams rise to that occasion, so it's going to be gut-check time, and lots of tests throughout the year to see if this team has what it takes."

The Canadiens have a solid base with star goaltender Carey Price, ace defencemen P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, and perhaps a little more scoring depth up front than a year ago.

But the biggest change is in the leadership.

Captain Brian Gionta was not offered a contract and signed with Buffalo, while his top assistant, defenceman Josh Gorges, was traded to the Sabres.

Instead of naming a new captain, general manager Marc Bergevin and his staff opted to go with four alternate captains. Markov and centre Tomas Plekanec will be alternate captains each game, while Pacioretty and Subban will share the third A. Price will also sit in on captains' meetings.

Management feels the younger talent took over much of the leadership last season.

"All 24 or 25 guys on the team will be relied upon to be leaders," said Pacioretty. "We don't have a captain set in stone.

"That puts the weight on everybody's shoulders. What's good about it is it doesn't leave one guy out to dry when times get tough. It'll ease the team into this transition year. It does feel different. Hopefully, we'll find a way to come together as one. It could definitely be to our benefit."

Others gone from last season's squad include trade deadline acquisition Thomas Vanek, veteran centre Daniel Briere, aging defenceman Douglas Murray, grinder Ryan White and seldom-used enforcer George Parros.

Newcomers are right-winger P.A. Parenteau, defenceman Tom Gilbert, fourth-line centre Manny Malhotra and 22-year-old Czech free agent Jiri Sekac.

Third-year coach Michel Therrien hopes the changes will give him three scoring lines and a better balance on defence.

Gilbert, signed from the Florida Panthers, is a right-hand shot whose arrival will allow physical rearguard Alexei Emelin to move to his natural position on the left side.

It appears the season will start with Gilbert and Markov as a pair, with Subban playing with Emelin and veteran Mike Weaver with 2011 first round pick Nathan Beaulieu. Six-foot-six Jarred Tinordi may also be in the mix.

Up front, Parenteau is expected to move to the first unit with centre David Desharnais and Pacioretty, who likes what he's seen of the new winger.

"What's really impressed me is he's hard on the forecheck," said Pacioretty. "He skates a lot.

"Sometimes you don't see that as much with the bigger points guys, but he's bought in since Day 1. He fits in with the in-your-face hockey we try to play."

Plekanec should have youngsters Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher on his wings.

The playoffs saw centre Lars Eller and left-winger Rene Bourque pick up their offensive production and they may be more dangerous with the slick-skating Sekac.

Malhotra, a solid faceoff man, should be flanked by veterans Brandon Prust and Dale Weiss, with veteran Travis Moen and the energetic Mikael Bournival providing depth.

There was one change in the coaching staff, with assistant Dan Lacroix arriving from the New York Rangers to replace Gerard Gallant, now head coach in Florida.

Last spring, the Canadiens got past Tampa Bay in the opening round and then posted a rousing, seven-game win over the rival Boston Bruins. Caught flat-footed to start the conference final, and with Price injured in the opening game, they fell in six games to the Rangers.

It was a huge emotional lift for the team and the Bell Centre fans to get that far. And Gallagher says the experience will help them in the future.

"For everyone that went through that payoff push and got that experience, it will pay big dividends when we have to go through adversity and different challenges this year," said Gallagher. "If we do what made us successful, we'll be fine.

"At the same time, we're a bit disappointed with the way it ended. We all feel we could have gone further. There's stuff to improve on, for sure."

The Canadiens are not a physical team, but make quick transitions to attack and play a high-paced checking game that leaves opponents little time to make plays. When there are breakdowns, Price is there to cover.

An area of concern would be a shortage of experienced depth on defence. Neither Beaulieu nor Tinordi has played a full NHL season.

The Canadiens played Galchenyuk at centre in the pre-season and, while the third-overall pick of 2012 is likely to start the season on left wing, he is expected eventually to play in the middle. That could happen sometime this season if there are injuries.

The big off-season story was the prolonged contract negotiations with Subban. The flashy defenceman spent a day in arbitration before he was handed an eight-year US$72-million contract, the richest in team history.

Eller also inked a new deal that pays $3.5 million for each of the next four years.

With Price, Pacioretty and Markov on long-term deals, the core of the team looks set for at least the next few years, although Galchenyuk, Gallagher and Bournival's entry-level contracts all expire after this season.

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