Left Field 

(ISN) – Something is stirring beneath the surface at the corner of Atwater and St. Catherines, where the old Montreal Forum used to stand. There’s been unconfirmed reports of an apparition or two hiding in the shadows, eager to finally make the move to the Bell Centre.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the Montreal Canadiens, who haven’t hoisted Lord Stanley’s chalice since 1993, appear to be skating in the right direction again. The shine on a strong start that resulted in a record of seven wins and one loss, their best start since 1960-61, was dulled during a swing through Western Canada that resulted in a win, a loss and an OT loss. But stops in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver have been a tough go in recent years, so it’s a little early for panic mode, even by Habs fans standards. And although November began with a 5-2 flame-out to Calgary, which marked the Habs first home loss of the season, their record currently stands at eight wins and three losses, the best in the Eastern Conference.

What may be most impressive about the recent run is that by his standards, a rather pedestrian start to the season by Carey Price means the team is winning without having to rely on Houdini-like performances in the crease every night. Another promising positive is this year’s group of gladiators has managed to overcome third period deficits with a regularity that has escaped previous teams for the past few seasons.

While coach Michel Therrien has continued to preach his mantra of defense first, he now has enough young guns to allow more creativity on the O zone because this group has more bang for the puck than the popgun rosters of the past decade. Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Plecanec and Alex Galchenyuk et al can find the back of the net without sacrificing a 200 foot game, and the defense, anchored by Andrei Markov, P. K. Subban and Alexei Emelin, is playing with poise at both ends of the rink.

The team has consistently improved each year under general manager Marc Bergevin, who had his fingerprints all over the Chicago team that delivered two Stanley Cups in the space of a couple of years before he moved to Montreal. Bergevin has addressed two major issues that have plagued fans of the team for years, a lack of size and youth. He solved those shortcomings without allowing cap space to become a problem by letting the kids play and replacing smurfs Daniel Briere and Brian Gionta with P. A. Parenteau and Manny Malhotra. The versatile Malhotra is playing like he’s years removed from a serious eye injury in March of 2011 that had him unceremoniously discarded by the Canucks. He is at his usual place at the top of the league in faceoff percentages, and is also quietly responsible for a trickle-down effect that has raised the play of the other centres in the faceoff circle.

For the first time since they stole a Cup in 1993 on the strength of Patrick Roy’s heroics in nets, bolstered by a collection of sage veterans and aging role players, this team looks like it is taking strides instead of baby steps towards hoisting another banner to the rafters in the near future. The experience gained from last year’s march to the conference final stoked the fire, and a mix of veterans with high expectations and young players with a burning hunger has pushed the team from the rank of middle-weight to serious contender. The Canadiens finally have the kind of swagger and leadership that underlines their belief that they deserve to be in the discussion of top teams for the next couple of years.

For a lifelong Habs fan like me, it’s never come down to a question of how many Cups the team has won or whether this team or that team has the mettle to be another dynasty. I think Montreal fans want what every fan wants, a team that can compete with the elite, a group of guys that pull for each other and play like they care about the final score as much in the third period as in the first, whether they’re up by three or down by five. Those magical seasons when Habs fans cheered in jubilation such during the four cups in a row run in the late 1976 to 1079 are counter-balanced by prolonged periods when all you could do is shake your head at the ineptitude of management and the futility of the product on the ice. Although my faith has flickered and required life support from time to time, the flame on that torch that lights centre ice before games at the Bell Centre has never been fully extinguished.

Part of the appeal of writing this column is the self-imposed challenge to try and engage and entertain even the most ardent Hab bashers with occasional, semi-objective ramblings about the team I grew up cheering for. In my defence, it’s taken until the eighth column to finally let my true colours fly, as rouge, blanc et bleu and until death do us part may they be. Take a minute to let me know how you feel about my musings in something printable and I’ll do my best to share them in a future submission. My apologies in advance to Bruins fans for not having the technology to include your comments in crayon.