Canadiens goaltender Cristobal Huet makes a save. (CPimages /Frank Gunn)
Calm may be the defining characteristic of the Montreal Canadiens goaltender, who has crept almost unnoticed into the NHL's top spot in goals-against average (1.93) and save percentage (.940) with a brilliant November. "He's very calm, very cool," defenceman Craig Rivet said Wednesday. "It always seems like he's never putting much effort into anything.
"It almost seems like he's lackadaisical on the ice. But that's why he's so effective. Because he's calm."
Huet has allowed only eight goals in his last six starts, all wins, and the latest may have been the best - a 36-save shutout of the Florida Panthers in a 1-0 shootout win on Tuesday night.
Montreal (14-6-3) won for the fourth time in five games and sixth time in eight games. Their 31 points is good for fourth in the Eastern Conference.
The Canadiens practice went quiet on Wednesday after Huet, who looked to be hit on the thumb or the arm with a shot, went down in pain. But he got up and finished the practice.
And while he was unavailable for interviews afterwards, coach Guy Carbonneau said he would start on Thursday night in Carolina, where he shut out the Hurricanes 4-0 on Nov. 2.
Huet is 9-2-2 this season and looks to have rediscovered his form from last year, when he returned from off-season knee surgery in December to go 18-11-1 with seven shutouts. The French goaltender also led the league last season with a .929 save percentage.
But so low-key is Huet, he's not even on the ballot for the fan voting for the NHL all-star game.
He had a so-so training camp and had an inconclusive 2-1-2 start to the season, when back-up David Aebischer looked poised to take over the starting job.
The NHL felt it couldn't put a goalie on ballot who wasn't sure to be a starter, but may have passed up one of the best in the conference.
And since Huet's shutout in Carolina, he's become the clear No. 1. Aebischer has lost his last three starts.
"It's not easy," said Aebischer. "I just have to stay sharp, practice as hard as a I can and play well when I get the opportunity.
"Cristo's playing really well. The way he's playing now, he's in front of the puck all the time. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes and that shows in the goals-against average."
Huet is largely responsible for Aebischer, his former rival in the Swiss league, coming to Montreal. It was Huet's solid play that allowed Montreal to trade former No. 1 Jose Theodore (and his US$5.3 million average salary) to Colorado for Aebischer and a draft pick last March.
Huet liked his Montreal experience so much he passed up free agency to sign a $5.75 million, two-year contract with Montreal, while Aebischer accepted a one-year qualifying off of $1.9 million.
"He's just a guy who works hard and he's got the confidence," defenceman Mark Streit, another former Swiss league rival, said of Huet. "That's what makes him a really good goalie.
"His biggest asset is his coolness. He stays calm no matter what happens on the ice. You see the results. It's working well."
Goaltending has had much to do with the Canadiens success at home and away this season. They are 7-3-2 at the Bell Centre and 7-3-1 on the road.
Rivet said it also has to do with team chemistry, which a few players have remarked on this season.
It's likely linked with winning, having a better mix of players and good management.
"When we get on the road, this is one big family right now," he said. "At the start of the year for our first game in Buffalo, we had 18 or 19 guys show up to a team dinner, which I haven't seen in the 12 years I've been here.
"Usually you'd make a dinner reservation and it was a team dinner for four."
Rivet cautioned that a losing streak, which is inevitable for any team, will test the team's cohesion.
But for now, the feeling is very upbeat. They have not lost two games in a row despite missing first-line winger Chris Higgins, who has missed three weeks with a groin injury and isn't due back before mid-to-late December.