Canadiens New Top Six Topple the Sabres; Preparation for the Sens Begins.
On a night that was a must need win for the Montreal Canadiens, they drew their courage and goals from players that many fans had given up on.
Coming off two very poor performances that have had Habs Nation crying out for change, le Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge stepped onto the ice in Buffalo against a heavily struggling Sabres team. Home ice has been no help to the Sabres who came into tonight with a 0-5-1 record at home. And adding insult to injury, star goaltender Ryan Miller would not compete due to a lower body injury.
Since facing their first back to back losses on the year, Jacques Martin made some big changes to his top two lines, looking to find anything at all that might spur them towards goal scoring. Andrei Kostitsyn found himself on the first line with Gionta and Gomez, while Lars Eller was set to play the wing, with Plekanec as his center man, and Cammalleri on the opposite side.
But as fate would have it, Pleks was out due to flu conditions, and that moved Dustin Boyd into Plekanec's place.
The Habs came out looking very spirited with great fore-checking, and some solid defense. No doubt that Spacek has picked up his game, with his new partner Hamrlik. It could easily have been a 1-0 game had it not been for a diving poke check from Spacek during an early Sabres break.
But I'm sure many a curse went up, and many a heart sank, as Michael Grier put the home team up by a goal late in the first, taking a feed from Tyler Ennis on an odd man rush.
It's common for the Habs to give up late period goals and often it sinks them. The difference tonight was how this team responded to pressure, and managed to get themselves right back into the match quickly, with responsive goals. Only 1:22 after the Grier goal, Halpern took a solid feed from Pouliot to bury it from the slot and tie it at one as the first period came to a close.
It seemed like deja-vu all over again near the midway point of the second, as a botched attempt to feed Gionta from Gomez became a turnover, and Spacek found himself pinching in too tight, giving the Sabres an odd man rush. In the ensuing play the team collapsed in on Price and allowed a swarming Leopold to swat home his fourth of the year.
Usually we see the team lose it's confidence during these moments of momentum swing, but tonight was to be a different night. Once again, the "Phd" line, doctored the score, as Pouliot took a feed from Halpern in the blue ice, and buried the puck to even the score at two.
The lesson to be learned here is that the 3rd and 4th lines of the Habs are firing on all cylinders, while the top 6 continue to struggle. Gionta continued to shoot wide tonight, while Cammalleri consistently fires into the logo of the defending goaltender. There was a bright spot watching Eller use his size a bit more tonight to open lanes, but our top 3 forwards need to start producing.
Beautifully, Pouliot closed out the scoring on the night, taking yet another feed from Halpern, and Markov, and burying it on the short side with a grueling slapshot.
Things that were clear tonight after Martin juggled the line-up are these:
Hamrlik seems to be bringing out the best in Spacek's play, and pulling apart Gorges and Gill was also overdue. The defense certainly was not perfect tonight, but definite improvement was seen.
Offensively, the questions continue to be asked. Do we need to induce a new Top Six? Perhaps we should consider starting Plekanec, Kostitsyn, Pouliot, Halpern, Darche, and Eller.
The one place where there are no question marks this year, is between the pipes. Carey Price faced 32 shots on goal, and made a great number of HUGE saves that kept his team in this game. He continues to shine and we're very fortunate to have that kind of skill in the net on any given night. His puck tracking is better, his puck handling is looking good, and most importantly, his confidence is showing.
All in all, a much needed win for La Flanelle as they improve on the season to 8-4-1, and continue to own first place on the Northeastern Division; sitting only one point behind the Capitals for an overall Eastern Conference lead.
Tomorrow night the Canadiens get welcomed back to the Bell Center, as they face off with the Ottawa Senators for the third meeting of the season.
The Habs have owned the Sens so far this season, closing both previous matches with wins of 4-3 and 3-0. But Ottawa, who began the season struggling, have pulled themselves back to a .500 club with a 6-6-1 record in the same number of starts as the Canadiens. They have also won their last two, and will certainly be looking to gain revenge for their first two finishes against Montreal.
Alfredsson, Gonchar, Spezza, and Fisher have combined for 38 points; and Kovalev (who's begun to come to life) is always looking to avenge his old team-mates when he walks into his old barn.
It's unsure at this point whether Coach Martin will see fit to play Price for a second straight night, but I won't be surprised to see him between the pipes. And Plekanec will without doubt, be back to light the offense on the top two lines.
With a confident win in Buffalo, and a tough week ahead, tomorrows match-up against the Senators has to be faced as a must win situation. There was a fire tonight, that has been missing in the past two games, and we can only hope that the complacent team we often see after a win, doesn't show up tomorrow night. Especially against a team that they may be overconfident in playing, based on this years results so far.