I'm convinced at this point that the Montreal Canadiens will feature in the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs and they're going to be a hard fight for anyone who takes them on in the first round.
The first reason is all about the best line the team has right now. Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Benoit Pouliot would be a potent scoring line for nearly any NHL team. They're dangerous, Gomez can carry the puck in to the zone with great speed and Gionta is even faster than he is plus has incredible reflexes that he can convert in to goals. Benoit Pouliot has excellent size, speed and very smooth hands, probably the most talented of the three, but he's still a rather raw NHL player, but he's learning quickly with the veterans and they're giving him every opportunity to prove he's a superb talent.
The return of Michael Cammalleri in about a week, he is the most natural sniper the Canadiens have had on their roster in a very long time. He has scored 26 goals in 56 games, he has two hat tricks and four game-winning goals to his credit. He's fast, he has smooth hands and brings leadership to the ice, Andrei Kostitsyn had not played as well as he did on the Plekanec/Cammalleri line since he teamed with his brother and Robert Lang in the 08-09 season. Had both Cammalleri and Kostitsyn not been sidelined by knee issues, I imagine the Canadiens would have at least 3 more wins on their record. His presence will raise his line with Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn to just as much a scoring threat as the Gomez group. Canadiens will be able to hit their opposition with two top scoring lines that threaten with incredible speed and shooting ability. The Canadiens have never been more successful than when they simply killed their opponents with speed and these men are all capable of carrying that out. Mike is a big-stage player, playing at the Bell Centre in the playoffs will only lead to him being an even more dangerous scoring player when the post-season fever hits Montreal.
Andrei Markov, I've said it before and I will say it again, is there a single defencemen in the entire Eastern Conference that has a better outlet pass than Andrei? Even if his skating is not 100% yet (which I don't find it is), his hands and vision are in perfect working order certainly. I've never seen anyone Montreal play against who has a defencemen who can reliably send a puck from the goal line to the far blue line and set up a breakaway opportunity like Markov can. I can't really confirm best in the NHL, as I don't see Detroit often enough to gauge Lidstrom's passing ability but I can't imagine it could be much better than Markov's. He has great offensive instincts and is a workhorse that will play all game if you ask him to and is fully capable of handling defence in his own end. He is the base of Montreal's defence and provides on-ice leadership every game he plays, the power play runs off of his efforts and he never gives up on any game he plays in. No player brings as many important elements to each game as #79.
I was dubious about the Dominic Moore trade, he was a pending UFA, but he is playing himself in to a new contract right now. Since he arrived in exchange for a 2nd-round pick in the 2011 draft he has stabilized the 3rd line, which has been in flux for most of the season, often featuring at least one ineffective player. With the arrival of the stable centremen who is more than willing to fight in the corners and win, things have improved considerably. He has the speed to work with young Sergei Kostitsyn, who is emerging as a very potent two-way forward and their work together has produced good results. With Travis Moen providing physical force on that line, they've become vital to the team's efforts on each night. Moore's ability to play on the penalty kill has given great relief to the team's MVP forward Tomas Plekanec, who too often would serve too much time on the penalty kill and be unable to contribute offensively by the end of a night. Sergei Kostitsyn, Dominic Moore and Travis Moen provide scoring potential, defence and a 3rd line no coach would mind throwing at the opposition.
Ryan O'Byrne is getting better this season, he's had his weak points but he is learning to play top minutes in the NHL being Andrei Markov's partner and that's not easy. He can hit with great force, he can fight if necessary and is a very big-body player that can be hard to work around. Markov can generally cover the mistakes of his partners and that gives him room to grow. Josh Gorges is always a model of the player who plays with heart and Hal Gill keeps the penalty kill running smoothly and is just a nice veteran presence to have in the room. Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek took on a lot more work than they should have had to endure but the Markov injury forced Martin to play his two veteran defencemen as the top pair and they performed as well as they could, even better than most suspected they could. They've had some rest and with Markov and O'Byrne taking top pair minutes, they can play fewer minutes and play much better because of it. Hamrlik is a model of consistency and Spacek as his partner has created a solid, although unspectacular pair that works well together and can be used freely in most situations.
Glen Metropolit, a good guy and a solid 4th-line man as you can find across the NHL. He's topped his career best in goals with 15 and has shown a knack for being on the power play this season, with a team-high 9 PP goals. He's a dependable player who can be used in all kinds of situations and isn't a deterrent on the 4th line. A general mix of the dependable Darche, Pyatt and a Lapierre who's getting back to his old self will allow the 4th line to be effective down the line. Marc-Andre Bergeron is simply a luxury the team can't afford anymore though, he can't bring a true prescence to the 4th line and there is no place for him on the back end.
Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price, a lot of teams would like to have two young goalies who can be No. 1 guys. Yes I said, I still consider Price a No. 1 type and you never know if the playoffs are what will make him go hot. Halak is going to be the starter in the playoffs but if he stumbles and Price takes over, he is entirely capable of carrying the load. He's been dominant in many games this season and gotten the team games they should've lost, or played dominantly and lost because the team in front of him failed. Halak has had a better year, but having Price being ready to take over is an excellent alternative.
The team has the tools to succeed, they just have to keep playing like they are and they will make the playoffs and perhaps go farther than anyone would have expected them to do, including themselves. I'm not talking about a certain Cup Run here, but a hard-fought playoff battle is something they can take home and plot to build on next season certainly. It is playoffs though and anything's possible, who would've thought the Hurricanes would knock off the Devils and Bruins last year?