It Hab-Ened Last Week: Canadiens Win Three; Lose Markov

No one said it was going to get any easier for the Habs, as the season began to wear on and the competition began to get stiffer. But interestingly enough, in the week a lot of people thought the Canadiens would finally begin to see some trouble, especially yours truly, as they faced three strong teams in the Canucks, Bruins and Hurricanes, the Montreal Canadiens made it look just that - easy.

The Canadiens kicked off the week with a Tuesday night match-up against the Northwest-leading Vancouver Canucks.The red-hot Canucks were on a six-game win streak and we're simply on a roll. The two main stories heading into the game were Roberto Luongo's return to his hometown, and the near-top of the league offense of the Canucks which included defending Art Ross winner Henrik Sedin, his brother Daniel, Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, and arguably the best group of offensive defensemen in the league. The result? A 2-0, inspiring team shutout win for the Canadiens? Really? Well, it happened. And yes, a major reason for that was Carey Price, who made 34 saves for his second shutout of the season, after going nearly 100 games without one before that, but this truly was a team win, with two defensemen contributing goals, and the likes of Gionta, Cammaleri and Plekanec providing the assists.

Well, things were bound to get tougher on Thursday night, right? A divisional game that meant a hell of a lot more than the game on Tuesday, and a trip down to Boston for a road game against the Bruins. The Canadiens couldn't POSSIBLY repeat what they did at the Bell Centre only two nights earlier? Well, ya, they kind of did. Thanks to yet another 34 save performance from Carey Price, and a truly complete effort from nearly everyone on the team and frankly, some great road coaching from Jacques Martin and his staff (THERE, I SAID IT, NOW GET OFF MY CASE!) that allowed the Canadiens to play basically a home game despite being on the road, the result was a great-looking 3-1 victory against the Canadiens' age-old rivals. In the game, PK Subban scored his first career regular season goal, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez both scored in the same game for the first time in nearly a year, and Tomas Plekanec continued his point streak with two assists, as did Cammalleri with an assist and 5 shots.

Okay. The Canadiens have won two games so far this week, against two tough teams. Now come the Hurricanes. Going into the game 8-8 with 16 points, the Hurricanes are just what everyone expected them to be... a .500 team with highs and lows, big peaks and deep valleys. And with an 8-1 loss to the Flyers on Thursday night, they were definitely coming off one Hell of a valley. The Habs just HAVE to be the dogs in this one, even at home, right?

WRONG.

When it was all said and done, when the dust had settled and the final buzzer had gone off, it ended up being the most dominant performance of the week from the Habs, as Jacques Martin led his team to a 7-2 victory that Habs fans haven't seen in a long time. In fact, I could be wrong here, but I don't think the Canadiens scored seven goals in a game all of last season.

Handing the 'Canes their second loss in a row, and nearly doubling their goals against from the prior game, the Canadiens ensured a perfect six-point record on the week. And ensuring it was all possible was, once again, Tomas Plekanec, who provided one of his best performances of the year - and I say "one of" because whether he scores or not he's simply been dominant in nearly every game - scoring a goal and adding three assists in 20 minutes of ice time. Right behind him was linemates Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta, as well as former linemate Andrei Kostitsyn with a goal and an assist each, and Jaro Spacek and Scott Gomez with two assists each. Pouliot, Darche, and Lapierre rounded out the seven unique goalscorers.

Lapierre had the highlight of the night for most of the evening with a spin-o-rama goal that can only be described as ridiculous. The moment the puck hit the back of the net a smirk lit up Lappy's face that's likely not going to come off the rest of the season. Hopefully the spark that we saw in him that started with what I thought was a star-deserving performance on Tuesday night will continue going forward.

But Lapierre's highlight-reel goal would soon be overshadowed by an amazing glove save from Carey Price that likely prevented any opportunity of a comeback from the Canes while the score was 5-2, halfway through the 3rd. Price gloved the puck and barrel-rolled onto his stomach with his hand between the legs. He would go on to jokingly shrug off the standing ovation, likely after a quirp from PK Subban. The save was really an incredible way to cap off maybe the best week of Carey Price's career, during a 28 save performance. On this night, the Habs didn't need it, having scored 7 goals on 33 shots and chasing two goaltenders from the visiting team nets.

Needless to say, if the three stars of the week for the NHL come out tomorrow and Price isn't among the league's top three performers of the week, it will be pure hogwash. Price is 3-0-0 this past week, with a 1.00GAA and a .970SVP, with a shutout and several highlight reel saves to top it all off. Of course, Tomas Plekanec, with a goal, 7 assists and a +3 rating in the same span should also be in consideratinig, but Price was truly a determining factor in what could only be described as the most dominating week of Montreal Canadiens hockey I have witnessed in a long while.

But as I stated above, the credit is due to much more than just Price or Plekanec. All forwards contributed to the victory. Cammalleri and Gionta were dominant, Kostitsyn and Gomez broke out of funks, nearly all the defensemen got on the board with goals and points, and the coaching strategies were excellent. Even Tom Pyatt, who has no gone 15 games without a point and remains the only had not to get on a scoresheet this season, had a good week, especially Thursday, where he had six shots and some good energy shifts on the 4th line.

To say that I was wrong on my prediction that the Canadiens would only muster a single point out of 6 this week would be an understatement. They surprised me, no doubt about it, and they really pulled some amazing performances out of their bag.

-----------------------------------------
WHERE WE GO FROM HERE

From here, the Canadiens continue their home stand with three more games at the Bell Centre. On Tuesday, they welcome the Philadelphia Flyers for their first meeting since the Broad Street Bullies eliminated the Habs from the Playoffs in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. It will likely be the Canadiens biggest challenge to date, as the Flyers are 8-1-1 in their last 10, and have been putting up ridiculous numbers all season. They will be facing the Sens less than 24 hours before, but they will definitely bring it for a rival team like the Habs.

The Canadiens will then welcome Sergei Kostitsyn and the Nashville Predators on Thursday. The Preds currently sit in 11th place in the tough Western conference, but are riding a 2-game win streak and it could turn into a 3-game win streak with a game against the Leafs on Tuesday night. They're a hard working team with a decent rating and who knows what that could mean for the Habs.

Finally, the Habs will close out the week with a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada. The Leafs recent troubles, which include the loss of their captain and best defensemen to a leg injury (jeez, where have I heard that before?), an 8-game losing streak and plenty of controversy, as usual, have been well-documented, and things could be nearing the point of sheer panic by the time the Leafs fly into Montreal for Saturday's game. You would imagine that something would have to give eventually, but the Leafs could very well enter the Bell Centre on a 10 game losing streak with matches against the Preds and Devils. Reason would dictate that they would at least win one of those games, but you never know. And you can bet that there's no team they would like better to end their streak with than the Canadiens, at the Bell Centre.

Of course, we may be getting a little ahead of ourselves here. There are still two tough games ahead for the Habs before they can even think about the Leafs. Moreover, the Canadiens and their fans will have yet another pressing issue on their mind as the week begins, and that's the status of oft-injured star defenseman Andrei Markov.

-------------------------------
PLAYER MOVEMENTS

It was a big week for the Canadiens on the ice, but it was also very eventful off of it.

BOYD
The week started with a mild bang when news broke that seldom-used forward Dustin Boyd would be placed on waivers. The move probably caused a little more controversy than it should have. Maybe we were looking for something to argue about in a season that had generally been pretty calm up to this point, but in this writer's opinion, Boyd was simply another person in a long line of misused young players by the coaching staff on this team.

Having played only 9 games this season, Boyd's stats admittedly didn't look too great with only one goal that was scored in the season opener against the Leafs and a -6 rating. But average ice time of only 9:58 and a clear lack of an opportunity on the one of the top two forward units really help at telling a clearer picture with it comes to Boyd. He was pretty much the only player on the line-up not to get a shot on the top six, even with players like Eller and Pyatt, who had done just as little in terms of statistics as Boyd, getting shots alongside Scott Gomez.

It's really not a matter of Boyd being a top six winger or a bona fide scoring forward, or anything like that, but really a matter of a young player with a decent background in scoring getting a proper chance before the coaching staff needlessly gave up on him. Boyd was misused, it's as simple as that. But in the grand scheme of things, he's still not really that important for the Habs, so we'll all just have to move on. It's just frustrating to see the Canadiens trade an asset and sign Boyd to a contract only to essentially let him go 9 games played later. But that's all we're going to say about Dustin Boyd, unless Martin decides to give him another shot.

O'BYRNE
The week continued with a trade from GM Pierre Gauthier and the Canadiens. The Habs would send seldom used defenseman Ryan O'Byrne to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for 18-year old prospect Michael Bournival. O'Byrne is another player who didn't really get a proper shot this season, but in this case, I would probably place less of the blame on the coach and a little more on the player. Yes, O'Byrne has had some rough times in recent years with the whole purse-snatching incident and the passing of his mother, but coming into this season, everyone knew that it was likely the 26-year-old's last shot with the Canadiens.

With the Habs getting deeper and deeper on the blue-line, and lots of older defensemen with one-way contracts occupying spots to start the season, things were going to be tough for O'Byrne. But with Markov and Hamrlik starting the season on the IR, O'Byrne was going to get his shot. Three games later, Hamrlik returned, and O'Byrne was outplayed by Alex Picard, and that's pretty much all she wrote. Many thought that he deserved to draw back in with Spacek playing poorly early on, but that was not to be either as Martin clearly had some well-deserved confidence in the experienced Spacek, who has bounced back in recent games.

O'Byrne would spend 12 games in the pressbox before being traded early on Thursday. Whatever you want to say about O'Byrne not getting a fair shot, I really don't there was much to be done here. The Canadiens are amongst the top defensive teams in the league at the moment, allowing some of the fewest shots per game. The only defenseman who might deserve a sitting was Spacek, but as discussed that didn't happen, and even if it did, Alexandre Picard was definitely going to get a shot before him. Moreover, if the Canadiens end up being in a bind, their farm team, the Hamilton Bulldogs, is one of the best teams in the AHL and have plenty of suitable prospects who can take a stab at it in Montreal.

O'Byrne career in Montreal was as good as done. And at 26 and waiver eligible, it was best to trade him before his value would drop any lower, and the Canadiens would have to lose him for nothing on waivers.

In the process, the Canadiens cleared nearly a million dollars in salary and picked up a legitimate prospect who could be on Team Canada at the world juniors in December. O'Byrne had a good game in his debut with the Avalanche, playing nearly 25 minutes in the game, but followed up the next night with nearly ten less minutes of ice time and a -1 rating. Still way too early to tell who won this trade, but it's clear that every side of this trade has a positive of which to speak.

MARKOV
Finally, the week would end with one hell of a low for the Habs and their fans. After winning three in a row against some tough opponents, getting rid of some dead weight, and really proving some of the naysayers wrong, the only headline of any important for the Canadiens was the status of defenseman Andrei Markov.

Late in the game Saturday night, there would be an accidental knee-on-knee collision between Markov and the Canes' Eric Staal, which would send Markov awkwardly into the boards, shades of his injury at the hands of Matt Cooke in game 1 of the second round of the playoffs last year. It would indeed end up being an injury to the same, surgically repaired right knee that kept Markov on the disabled list for nearly six months.

There is, of course, no complete diagnosis of the injury as of yet and the Canadiens are remaining tight-lipped about it, calling it the infamous "lower-body injury" that we've all come to know and love, but unconfirmed reports have surfaced via RDS's Renaud Lavoie stating markov could be out at least 3 additional months, after only 7 games back in the line-up. Of course this is mostly speculation at the moment, but we should know more in the coming days. The injury will be the third to Markov's leg in just over a year, after also suffering a lacerated tendon in the 2009-10 opener against the Leafs.

The news comes at an extremely bad time, obviously with the trading of O'Byrne on Thursday, and with the Canadiens starting to roll with a full line-up, especially with the contributions of Markov and the rest of the defense. On top of that, the injury news really puts a question mark on the status of Markov heading into free agency next July. What will the Canadiens do now that Markov is becoming more and more injury-prone? Will they risk signing him to big dollars on a long term deal knowing he could very hell go down again, especially if his knee will require surgery once again?

The sole benefactor of this injury will be Alexandre Picard, who will draw back into the line-up Tuesday night after going +7 in 9 games at the start of the year, before losing his spot to the returning Markov. He will try to pick up where he left off. It remains to be seen if the Canadiens will call up a defenseman from Hamilton, but the list of potential candidates is not short: Yannick Weber has 8 goals 4 assists in 14 games, and could be a decent replacement for Markov on the powerplay, but he is -4 on the season. Brendan Nash has experience and 7 points with a +4, but could be too much like what the Canadiens currently have to be a good fit. Frederic St-Denis has 7 assists in 14 games, and Mathieu Carle rounds off the list of candidates with 4 goals and a +6 rating.

With the Canadiens performing well - with or without Markov - so far this season, it's definitely not time to panic if you're a Habs fan. There are plenty of candidates to make up for Markov's new absence internally, and the habs were just starting to prove that they can win without him. If the rumors are true, the next three months will be nothing but a test of the Canadiens' new found defensive depth.

--------------------------
As we wait for word on Markov and prepare for Philly's arrival on Tuesday, keep an eye on TCL on Monday for the announcement of this upcoming weekend's TCL Habs panel from Iain Carnegie! Make sure to submit your questions on the forums, and join us during the week for more awesome live discussions during our patented live blogs! There will also be another major announcement from the TCL staff some time this week, so look out for that as well!

Until then, try not to lose sleep over Markov's injury, and look out for another exciting week of Canadiens' hockey!

Prax
www.twitter.com/GeorgePrax
prax@thecheckingline.com

Comments

George Prax's picture

Carey Price named first star of the week, as I thought he would.