Road Trip Wrap-Up; Homestand Preview
Going into last night's game against the Anaheim Ducks, there's no way Habs fans couldn't be happy with the previous three games their team had faced on the road.
A win against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday included 4 unanswered third period goals and a good team game to bring the Canadiens to a 4-1 victory against their most immediate Eastern Conference rival. This was the proverbial ''must win'' for the Canadiens, and everyone delivered. From Carey Price, who posted a .958 save percentage in the win, to the 3rd and 4th line players who provided three of the goals, to the offense that peppered 32 shots against the bruins and the defense which split 20+ minutes a piece amongst five of them. Tuesday's win was a good way to come back from the lull of being off the ice for two weeks during the Olympics when you know you should be fighting for a playoff spot.
Fast-forward to Thursday. The trade deadline has come and gone, and the team remains intact, for the most part. Matt D'Agostini, who sat Tuesday's game against the Bruins and has generally been a non-factor for the Canadiens, even going back to last year, has been shipped off to St. Louis in exchange for a prospect. Ahead of the Canadiens is a long plane ride across the continental United States to sunny SoCal, and a tough stretch of three games against the Sharks, Kings and Ducks, all over the course of only four days.
The game against the San Jose Sharks starts off well, as the Canadiens go up 2-1 by the end of the second period, against a team that is clearly better than them. The stacked Sharks team managed to stage a comeback, and the Habs lose the game 3-2. Despite the loss, the Canadiens hung in the game and got a great performance from Carey Price. Up against a team bringing four Olympic Gold Medalists, including an entire scoring line, they can't be too upset with a one goal loss.
Finally, Saturday sees the Canadiens lead nearly the entire match-up against the Los Angeles Kings and take home an impressive 4-2 victory against one of the better young teams in the league. Brian Gionta, Benoit Pouliot and Scott Gomez continue to prove their worth to the team, providing a combined 3 goals and 4 assists with a +6 rating in the victory. Tomas Plekanec scores his first point since early February, and everything is fine and dandy in Habs-Land.
What was there to expect come Sunday night in Anaheim? A tired troupe of Canadiens that just went through a tough game against the Kings not 20 hours earlier? A Ducks team frustrated after being shut out 4-0 by the Phoenix Coyotes, and losing 4-3 to the Avalanche a few days earlier? No one could have really blamed the Habs if they lost this one. And for a while, it looked like they were going to lose it.
The first period saw the Ducks go up 3-0 on goals from Olympic gold medalists Corey Perry and Scott Neidermayer, as well as from newly acquired defenseman Lubomir Vishnovsky. Carey Price, despite putting up a not-so-bad performance that kept the Canadiens from falling even further behind, lets in three goals and gets pull thanks to the lack of effort of his teammates. And despite a second period goal from Tomas Plekanec, bringing his streak to two games and his total goals to 19, the game looked to be just out of reach, with the Canadiens trailing by two goals all to way to the 18 minute mark of the third period.
A sudden flash if brilliance from what has turned into the Canadiens first line since Mike Cammalleri tore his MCL sees Brian Gionta score his 20th goal, and Markov score his 4th from Gionta and Gomez, with only 11 seconds left in the game. Just like that, with everyone tuned in to ABC to watch another boring Oscars telecast, we're tied and headed to overtime!
Overtime brings nothing. The shootout sees one of the weird goals scored in the NHL in the post-lockout era. Jonas Hiller makes an initial save on Brian Gionta and traps the puck under his arm. Uncertain of where the puck is, Hiller allows his momentum to take him into the net. When he raises his arm to find the puck, it falls into the net, and the Canadiens are still in this after an earlier shootout goal from Ryan Getzlaf. James Wisniewski misses his shot, and it's all up to Tomas Plekanec, who is 0-4 in shootouts prior to this game, and an incredible 1-for-14 in his career.
Plekanec delivers, scores on a nifty shot, and gives the Canadiens the victory, lifting them to 3 and 1 on their four game road trip and bringing them back home with 6 well-earned points.
The victory brings the Canadiens to 70 points in 67 games. Currently in 7th spot in the East, one point ahead of the struggling Boston Bruins, the Canadiens have a three-game home stand to put some distance between them and their rivals. A win on the 11th place Tampa Bay Lightning may ensure that the Canadiens will only have two teams to worry about down the stretch, with the Panthers, Hurricanes, Islanders and Leafs basically out of it already. Thursday's game against the lowly Oilers needs to be a victory. Finally, the Bruins are in town Saturday night in what might be the most important game of the season for the Canadiens so far.
Can the Habs continue their winning ways and ensure a playoff spot, with teams behind them falling further and further back? Can they bring their Western Conference momentum back to the Bell Centre? Have they finally learned to play a full, 60-minute team game? If the come-from-behind victory against the Ducks wasn't telling, it was at least a reason for Habs fans to keep the faith. The road ahead will not be easy, with most of the teams around the Habs having games in hand, but we can take solace in knowing that Canadiens know how to win and know how to compete. They just have to find a way to put it together on a consistent basis, and it starts tomorrow against the Bolts.
NOTES / MUSINGS
- After Carey Price was pulled to try and shake things up in last night's game, you had to know that the Price vs. Halak debate would come up again. No one said anything after two solid performances on Tuesday and Thursday from Price, but they're quick to question the decision of playing Price after Halak beat the Kings. While I agree that Halak needs to play out most of the remaining games so long as he's hot, Price deserves better than what he's getting from the team in front of him, and especially the fans.
- When Mike Cammalleri comes back in the next couple of weeks, does his line with Plekanec and Kostitsyn become the number one line again, or do Pouliot, Gionta and Gomez remain with that title attached to their names?
- Andrei Markov is clearly playing hurt. To the point where the organization has to start questioning his ego. Should he have played in the Olympics? Is he only playing now so that people don't question his dedication after skipping out on the Habs last two games pre-Olympic break?
- I'm anxiously waiting for Tomas Plekanec's new contract. It needs to be taken care of before the end of the regular season. Plekanec wants to play here, the team wants him to stay, and both parties understand the cap implications of Plekanec going to market. Why isn't this thing done yet?
- Is Paul Mara done as a Montreal Canadien? If so, how long do you keep him as dead weight on the roster?
- Finally, is there anything left to say about Maxim Lapierre? Clearly this team can function without him. If he doesn't get rid of that ego soon, I'd rather see him gone from the team with the Canadiens in the middle of a very important stretch of games when he gets back from his useless suspension.
More tomorrow as the Canadiens gear up to face the Lightning.