MONTREAL -- Michel Therrien's players said a lot of things about him during his tenure as coach of the Penguins.
Not many were meant for publication. Fewer were flattering.
But even those who were most critical of how Therrien interacted with his players -- and, some said, with others whose paths he crossed -- recognized the positive impact he had on the franchise.
Specifically, how he helped to lay the foundation for the Stanley Cup they won a few months after he was replaced by Dan Bylsma in mid-February 2009.
"I don't know if I always agreed with the methods," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "But I think he came in and brought a lot of stability and instilled a lot of discipline to an organization that needed it."
Orpik is one of eight current Penguins who played for Therrien in the NHL. The others are forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Tyler Kennedy, Pascal Dupuis, and Matt Cooke; defensemen Mark Eaton and Kris Letang; and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Therrien was a candidate for several coaching jobs after Penguins general manager Ray Shero fired him, but didn't get one until June, when he was brought back for a second stint in Montreal.
The Canadiens finished last in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12, but enter their game at 7:08 p.m. today against the Penguins at the Bell Centre atop the East and on a 7-0-2 roll.
Matchup: Penguins at Montreal Canadiens, 7:08 p.m. today, Bell Centre.
TV, Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Carey Price for Canadiens.
Penguins: Are 6-2-2 in past 10 games in Montreal. ... C Sidney Crosby has 11 goals, 17 assists in 20 career games against Canadiens. ... Have 36-26-6 record when injured C Evgeni Malkin does not play.
Canadiens: Have 8-3-1 record at home. ... Reacquired RW Michael Ryder's next goal will be his 100th for Montreal. ... Have killed 17 of opponents' 18 power plays over past seven games.
Hidden stat: Penguins have trailed at first intermission four times in first 21 games.
No one familiar with Therrien is surprised that he had an immediate impact on the Canadiens' performance, but few anticipated him orchestrating such a dramatic transformation in their fortunes.
"They were last last year and now they're first, so it's quite a turnaround," Fleury said. "But, along with him, they got some new players and a new system, so I guess it's been working well for them."
Therrien's coaching philosophy focuses on defensive responsibility and accountability, two qualities in precious short supply in Pittsburgh when he was promoted from the minor league team in Wilkes-Barre in December 2005, replacing Eddie Olczyk.
"He put a good system in and cleaned up the place," Fleury said. "And we had some success after."
The Penguins qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2006-07, Therrien's first full season behind their bench, and came within two victories of a Stanley Cup the following season.
But, in a league where coaching shelf-lives are notoriously short, Therrien's often-caustic manner of dealing with his players gave his tenure an even earlier-than-usual expiration date.
With the stretch drive looming and the Penguins -- who had been a popular choice to return to the Cup final -- marooned outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference in 2009, Shero decided that Therrien had to go if there was to be any chance of salvaging the season.
"It was a tough season, that's for sure," Fleury said. "It just seemed like we weren't consistent.
"We had some good games, we had some bad games. Then things weren't going well, and we kind of got tight a little bit.
"It's a tough business. When things don't go well after a few years, [coaches] are usually the one getting booted out."
But even after Therrien was removed from behind the bench, his imprint remained on their play.
The structure and emphasis on sound team defense he introduced helped to make their championship possible, and some of the fundamentals he preached made impressions that have lasted for years.
"One thing he kind of demanded, not only of myself but everybody, was improving practice habits," Orpik said." Some days, maybe if you didn't feel 100 percent, you didn't go 100 percent.
"Not just your body, but your mind. Him making everybody realize that how you practice has a direct effect on how you play games -- that's one thing that improved my game a lot."
Therrien undoubtedly has delivered a similar message -- and likely not gently -- to the Canadiens.
And even though factors like exceptional goaltending by Carey Price obviously have contributed to Montreal's exceptional record, Therrien's role in the turnaround can't be ignored.
"He gets the most out of his players, for sure," Kennedy said.
"He demands a lot from you. Maybe that's why they're doing so well, because he demands everything you've got, every game."
NOTES -- Crosby was named the NHL's second star for February after putting up six goals and 18 assists in 14 games. Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos was the No.1 star, while Chicago goalie Ray Emery was No. 3. ... The Penguins had a scheduled day off Friday. ... Onetime Penguins right winger Colby Armstrong, who joined Montreal as a free agent last summer, has no goals and three assists in 20 games.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published March 2, 2013 5:00 AM