Today is the 15th of December and as we hit the official half-way point of the month we also hit the half-way mark of the Habs' 17 games in 28 nights. And how have our beloved Habs fared so far? Hmmmm, looks like a win one/lose one trend, much like the rest of the year has been for them. Sadly, this team could have a lot more points that it currently has (33 in 34 games) if not for tripping over themselves. In losing last night's game, 4-3, to the Buffalo Sabres, Montreal let another winnable two points slip away. Why? Because of stupid, undisciplined penalties late in the game. Two minutes after Cammalleri tied the game at three, with less than 8 minutes remaining in the game, Montreal took back-to-back penalties resulting in a Buffalo 5 on 3 powerplay. While Montreal's PK has been tremendous lately - currently clicking at a 83.4% good for 9th overall in the league - you cannot consistently put yourself in penalty trouble and expect to win games.
When Glen Metropolit took a pointless slashing penalty, followed by O'Byrne's high stick less than a minute later, Montreal sealed their own fate. I hear a lot of people talking about bad refereeing, but you cannot blame the refs for the lazy, indiscipline that has seemed to have crept into the Habs play, of late. While the Habs had a powerplay with 2 mins left in the game, they were ultimately unable to find the back of the net and pull even for a third time in the night. As frustrating as it was to watch, Montreal truly got what they deserved.
1 - Halak was ordinary. This is the first time in a long time that the first point of my list is not about a Habs' goalie stealing the show. Not surprisingly, then the result is that we lost the game. As we break the 30 game barrier on the season, it is more and more apparent what kind of team Montreal has. Granted, they have had a ton of injuries and they have been missing Markov and Gionta - two key guys on this team - but even with them in the lineup, this team is a little flat. So far, Montreal has developed two patterns; the first being that they win games by their goaltender standing on his head and the second is that they lose games by taking bad penalties in the third period. They did it against Pittsburgh and against Atlanta and are now on a three-game losing streak. While Halak was ordinary last night, stopping 23 of 27 shots on net, he certainly cannot be blamed for the loss. The team in front of him just hung him out to dry. You simply cannot keep making mistakes, in this league, and expect your goaltender to always bail you out. You don't win a lot of games playing that way.
2 - What has happened to Ryan O'Byrne? What happened to the confident young man who started the season, got injured, came back and played every bit as inspired as before his injury? What happend to the guy who made a steady, reliable first pass out of the zone, who never panicked with the puck, who displayed tremendous defensive coverage, who was hitting people in the corners, blocking shots, and becoming a stalwart on the backend? Unfortunately, he seems to have been replaced by a guy who's confidence is shot. A guy who makes bad passes, bad decisions with the puck and takes bad, lazy, untimely penalties. O'Byrne looks like the O'Byrne of last year, and that is not a good thing for the Habs. Unless he can find his confidence again, he could be headed on a bad path. One that will lead him to the minors or more likely dealt at the trade deadline. Either result would be terrible as I truly believe that he can be a very serviceable NHL defenceman. Only time will tell...
3 - Gomez...calling Scott Gomez...are you out there? If 'bad' or 'lacking confidence' is the way to describe Ryan O'Byrne right now, then 'invisible' would be the word to describe Scott Gomez. Gomez has simply been dismal this season. 4 Goals, 12 assist and a minus 1 rating are not the numbers an $8 Million man should be putting up. Now, to his credit, Bob Gainey got, in Gomez, a guy who is a passer and not a scorer. The problem right now, is that he has no one to pass the puck to. Since Gionta went down with a broken foot, about a month ago, Gomez has been completely ineffective and invisible on the ice. Not for lack of effort, mind you, but he simply looks lost out there without Gionta on his wing. Unlike Plekanec, who is making anyone he plays with better, Gomez is simply not able to contribute anything. In desperation, Jacques Martin has him paired with Sergei K and Maxim Lapierre. Both are good players, but neither compliment Gomez tremendously well because neither are finishers. Sergei is also more of a passer and Lapierre is a grinder. All three have the ability to get the puck to the scorer, but there is no scorer to be found on that line. Will Gionta coming back completely change that? Having Sergei and Gomez on his line will certainly help, but I think that the second line - and that is what Gomez's line is - needs another scoring punch, along with Gionta, in order to be successful.
4 - The Habs' first line of Cammy, Plekanec and AK46 is starting to clicking like gangbusters. Andrei Kostitsyn, in particular, has woken up. With 2 more goals and an assist, last night AK46 is officially on fire. Aside from having back-to-back two goal games, Andrei now has 14 points in his last 11 games. Add that to Pleks 17 points over the same 14 games, and Cammy's 14 points over the same period, and Montreal has a true, bonafide 1st line that is firing on all cylinders. Moreover, anyone watching the game last night saw some moments of pure magic, between those three. You can see that they are starting to know where each other will be on the ice and the result is simply baffling to opposing defensemen. Let's hope they keep it up! Aside from AK46 coming to life - and let it be known that he has ALWAYS been a slow starter - Cammy potted his 18th of the season (and 150th of his career). This puts him on pace for 43 goals this year. Ummm, hey, Steve Yzerman and the Olympic selection team, you guys paying attention? And Pleky? Wow. Just wow. He has 34 points in 34 games and has consistently been the Habs best player, all season. He excels in the faceoff circle, on the PK, PP, even strength, and if he keeps playing this way he should get consideration for the Selke trophy at the end of the year. Yep, that's right. I'm calling Pleks as a Selke candidate right now.
5 - Ultimately, the story of the game was bad, untimely penalties....again. Metropolit took ANOTHER game losing penalty, in the third, and was benched for the rest of the game for it. I can only surmise that with all the injuries and the compressed schedule, the Habs have a lot of guys playing more minutes than they should be, resulting in third period fatigue. This fatigue leaves them a step behind their opponents and results in hooking, tripping and obstruction penalties. Martin's style and system is allowing him to squeeze every ounce out of most of the players on the ice, but it has become apparent that Montreal just does not have the horses right now. Even when Gionta and Markov are back, the Habs will need more juice in order to become a factor this year.
The bottom line is that the Habs indiscipline once again lost them the game. Last night's loss to Buffalo was the Habs' 3rd loss in a row. The loss still leaves Montreal in the 8th and final playoff spot, but they are now tied with Florida (33 points) and only 2 points ahead of Philly, NY Rangers, Tampa, Toronto and the Islanders. And, except for Florida, all of those teams have at least 1 game in hand over Montreal.
Markov and Gionta cannot come back soon enough, but be cautioned that I do not believe that Montreal will suddenly be an incredible team with those two back. A better team, yes, but Montreal's problem is the same right now as it has been for the last four years; we only have 1 scoring line. Even when Gionta comes back, Montreal look like a team that is in need of a top six winger in order to be a real threat in this league. The interesting thing, is that for the first time in a long time, Montreal actually has a lot of moveable assets and might be in a good position to pull off a major trade to bring in another top-6 player. Ideally, we need another scoring winger to play with Gomez and Gionta and having tradeable assests like Halak, Lapierre, Yannick Weber, Matt D'Agostini and perhaps even the Kostitsyn brother (although I seriously doubt they will be moved), Montreal can and SHOULD make a move to upgrade their team. There were apparently a lot of scouts in the stands last night and rumours are abound of Gainey talking with various teams. I think there is no question that at a minimum, the tire kicking has begun. All that is left to find out is how bold Gainey is willing to be. Usually, he ain't that bold, but with his rebuild - and in a lot of ways his own butt - on the line, something tells me that he will not stand pat this year.
Tomorrow night the Devils and Brodeur (groan....) then we welcome Guillaume Latendrese, and the Wild, to Montreal the following night. Enjoy the week, all!
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