Habs Dominate on the Road Before Bruins: What Will Hab-En Tomorrow Night?
Despite a seemingly negative start of the week with a quiet trade deadline, it turned out to be a great week for the Montreal Canadiens and their fans last week.
The Canadiens would sweep a three game road trip in the Southeast, defeating the Atlanta Thrashers (3-1 on Tuesday), the Florida Panthers (4-0 shutout on Thursday) and finally the Tampa Bay Lightning (4-2 on Saturday night) to accumulate a much needed six points and solidify their spot ahead of the rabid race for the final two spots in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't play a little Devil's advocate here. Tuesday's game against a struggling Atlanta Thrashers team that is now 3-6-1 in their last ten and pretty much out of the playoff race wasn't exactly awe inspiring. The Canadiens struggled the whole way through the game and were lucky to come out with the victory. Take out Brian Gionta's empty netter and that's a one goal game, and a game where the Thrashers nearly doubled the Canadiens' shot totals with 41 to the habs 23. Carey Price was the reason the Canadiens won that night.
But I'm not complaining, because the Canadiens made up for it on Thursday. Facing a Florida Panthers team that had just completed the first stages of their latest firesale at the deadline, and one that's even more out of the playoff race than the Thrashers (2-6-2 in their last 10, 61 points for 13th place currently), the Canadiens did exactly what they needed to do - dominate. The shot totals were pretty much even at 31-30, so Price still had to do his thing, but the Canadiens' scoring depth would finally show up (no really), with Kostitsyn netting his 16th, Desharnais his 7th, Eller his 5th and Hal Gill his first goal in 100 games (no, really). Eller and Kostitsyn would also put up assists, with Travis Moen and James Wisniewski contributing two each.
After that complete team win, the Canadiens would head across the state to Tampa Bay, where the Lightning were waiting. Tampa usually has Montreal's number, but with this being plugged as a potential first round playoff series, the pressure was on for the Canadiens and they delivered. The Habs would catch a disorganized Bolts team, possibly rattled by the large amount of Habs fans in attendance, and the Habs would go up 2-0 in the first on goals from Hal Gill (seriously) and David Desharnais, both scoring in consecutive games. The Bolts would recover and would trade goals with the Habs in the final two periods, but Price would do his thing yet again, making 43 saves and allowing the Habs to walk away with another two points.
While it was a perfect week for the Canadiens in the standings, it wasn't all that perfect on the ice. The Habs are allowing way too many shots and with Alex Auld clearly unreliable as a back-up, you have to be worried that they may be overworking Carey Price. The Canadiens clearly have the ability to score goals. Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais are scoring machines and incredibly motivated, and they're making the players around them - Andrei Kostitsyn and Scott Gomez included - perform at their level. Thomas Plekanec is getting a much needed break with his minutes cut after he was clearly gassed in the game against the Canucks two weeks ago, and as the playoffs approach Mike Cammalleri will surely begin to pick up his game, and this team is looking pretty damn good, with the teams above them stumbling and the teams below them far enough not to be an immediate threat.
But even with all of this, the one player that makes the Canadiens a legitimate threat is Carey Price. Thirty wins, with a shot to hit 40, seven shutouts, a .923 save percentage and 2.34 goals against, those are vezina numbers. No matter what Tim Thomas is doing in Boston (and more on Boston in a bit), Price is doing it basically without his top two defensemen. Carey Price is the reason the Canadiens won three games last week, and the reason why they'll stand a chance to continue winning. He makes this team a threat, even with all their injuries. He will likely be one of the NHL's top stars of the week, he'll get that Vezina nomination when the season is done, and he will lead the Habs into the playoffs guns blazing, no matter of the competition is the Bolts, Bruins, Flyers, Caps or Penguins.
No matter how many points Andrei Kostitsyn or David Desharnais or James Wisniewski put up this week, Carey Price is the #1, #2 AND #3 star for the Habs this week.
TRADE DEADLINE: ONE WEEK LATER
If you think that a four game win-streak is going to change my mind about the inactions of GM Pierre Gauthier at last week's trade Deadline, think again. This is exactly why I went into rant mode following the eadline last Monday. While the Canadiens may not be a "complete" team and injuries will likely force them out of contention earlier in the playoffs than last year, you have to think that they stand a chance at surprising a few people again. Their spot in the playoffs is almost guaranteed, and as we've seen this week, teams ahead of them like the Flyers, Pens and Lightning are stumbling. Teams below them like the Rangers, Sabres and Canes are barely .500 in recent games and IF the Leafs and/or Devils end up making the playoffs they'll be too gassed to do anything significant.
Regardless of injuries, and of the streakiness of some of the Habs' players, there's a huge opportunity for the Habs to have another underdog run. While it's unlikely, and a run to the cup is even more unlikely, I still can't understand why Pierre Gauthier would do literally nothing to improve this team, while other teams were wheeling and dealing and picking up young players that will be with their new teams for years. It's not like there were only 35-year-old rentals on the market, but somehow, the Canadiens managed to pick up two of those, and none of the rest. While, again, I'm not suggesting Gauthier should have sold the farm to pick up a Penner or even a Neal or Stewart, I don't see how there can be any excuse for nothing attempting to improve the Canadiens forward lines, and no win streak will change that.
The Flyers may be slumping now, but they're going to come out of it. And do you know why? Because their GM takes his team's assets, no matter what they are, and he improves. He adds players where everyone thought his team was already stacked enough, and he has no trouble doing it. But the moment any discussion about the Canadiens giving up anything to improve the club in the present comes up, it's always "they don't have any assets" or "well they're not going to win anyway". This type of thinking is unacceptable. And so long as the fans of this team are brainwashed by the "steady as she goes" tactics of this general manager and his team, it's not going to get any better than a 6th place finish.
This mentality and acceptance of mediocrity needs to stop.
But for this season, it is what it is, and only time will tell what the Canadiens can do with their current line-up.
BRUINS SHIPPING UP TO MONTREAL
Speaking of what the Canadiens might be able to do, tomorrow night marks arguably the most anticipated game of the season for the Montreal Canadiens.
The Boston Bruins will be heading to Montreal for the rematch following last month's "Beantown Beatdown", an 8-6 barnburner that saw fight after fight, penalty after penalty, and at one point up to 11 players in the penalty boxes at TD Banknorth arena in Boston on that cold Wednesday night in February a month ago, almost to the day.
In Boston, the media has been plugging tomorrow's game as some sort of attempt at "revenge" from the Canadiens. And you can bet that that idea will be firmly implanted in the brains of the big bad Bruins when the puck drops tomorrow night. How the Canadiens will react, however, is anyone's guess. Despite being involved in several of these types of games over the course of his career, Jacques Martin isn't exactly the biggest fan of the rough stuff. Many will see this as an opportunity to bring up a couple of goons from Hamilton just to get the fighting out of the way and send the messages that seemingly need to be sent.
But knowing this coach, the likely response is to pretend like last month's game never happened, play the defensive game that they're used to playing, and use last change to win the game on the scoreboard, and not in the PIM columns.
Frankly, I'm not sure how I feel about that. Yes, the Canadiens should be focusing on wins and not fights, but as mentioned above, with a fair amount of breathing room on both sides of the standings, this is an opportunity for the Canadiens to send their own message. A message that they can't be pushed around, that they can respond, that they can fight back and they can beat the Bruins.
Instead, it's likely that we'll see one of two outcomes: The Bruins will take advantage of a Habs team that will have no interest in retaliating, or we'll have a low scoring game with little to no violence, allowing the rivalry to simmer even more before it inevitably comes to ahead in the playoffs next month. Because you know as well as I do, the stars will align on any given year if it means a Habs and Bruins playoff series, and this year, it's looking more likely than ever that they'll somehow end up facing each other.
That being said, what would you like the Canadiens to do tomorrow? Do they play their game and hope the Bruins don't remember what happened, or do they do whatever they can to ensure they send their own message? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
HABS BLOGGER CONTEST
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We'll be back tomorrow with more on the Bruins and Habs, so stay tuned!