After waiting for 64 years the Habs finally won a December 23rd road game. I always find little stats like that pretty useless but as human beings we seem to track even the minutest of details. And as such, it is good to know that "the curse" has been broken. Ummm....ya.
In demolishing the Canes 5 to 1, the Habs extended their winning streak to three games and are now 4 and 0 with Markov in the lineup this season. Aside from Markov, there are a ton of things to be happy about, with this team, as we approach the 41-game halfway point of the season. Unfortunately, there a lot of bad signs that do not bode well going forward. Despite the ups and down of the season so far, the Habs have managed to remain a .500 hockey club - they are current 18-18-3 for 39 points on the season tied for 9th overall in the East. Let's hope that the return of Markov and the three-game streak can spur them to a better record for the rest of the season. If it can, the playoffs will be very much a reality for the Habs this season.
1 - While I usually start with the goaltending and while Halak was again incredible last night, today I simply have to put Tomas Plekanec at the top of the list. Plekanec who has 9 points over his last three games. Plekanec who, with 43 points (7G, 36A) now sits in sole possession of 6th overall in league scoring. Plekanec who last year had 39 points (20G, 19A) all season. Plekanec who has become THE offensive catalyst of this team and who is on pace to put up 90 points (15G, 76A) and become the 1st Habs 90-point man since Pierre Turgeon. Plekanec who, playing at even strength, on the 1st PP unit and the 1st PK unit, is on his way to being a TOP Selke Trophy candidate and who might start getting considering for the Hart Trophy too. Yep, that guy. Night after unbelievable night, Plekanec is simply dominant. Despite being given a ton of extra physical attention from opposing teams, Pleks is fighting through it all and is putting up a ton of points in the process.
While his line with Cammy and Ak46 - who is also on fire now with 18 points in his last 16 games - is on fire, we have to remember that Pleks spent the first 20 or so games playing with a revolving door of line mates. He also started the year as the teams 2nd line center but despite both facts he leads the team in scoring and is now the undisputed #1 center of this team. Now, I know a lot of Habs fans are freaking out that Gainey has not yet signed the soon to be UFA, but it was explained to me last night that by CBA rules a player cannot be offered two contracts between July 1st and December 31 of the same calendar year. The Habs already gave Pleks a 1 year contract, during the summer, and now must wait till January 1st, 2010 before making his another contract offer. Personally, I would not be surprised to see Gainey sign Pleks BEFORE the Olympic break so he can focus his energy on putting together a good package, with Halak, to try and get more top-6 scoring. While we all know that Gainey let all of his UFA'a walk last year, I think we can rest assured that he will not do the same with Pleks and that he WILL sign him before we walks.
2 - Halak, Halak, Halak. What can we say about Halak? Talk about making a statement. This guy asked Gainey to be traded, a few weeks ago, and since then has play three back-to-back-to-back games and put in scintillating performances. Over the last three games, Halak has seen a total of 137 shots against (40, 50 and 47 respectively) and has stopped all but 4 pucks for a 1.33 GAA and a 0.97 Save Percentage. Wow. Talk about upping your value! The talk, a few weeks ago, was that Halak, by himself, was worth a 2nd round pick at best. His play since then, however, has pushed that value up considerable and people are paying attention. I would have to think that by now he is worth closer to a 1st round pick or a good prospect on his own. If Gainey can somehow package Halak with a prospect and maybe even a pick, he should be able to a top notch winger or centerman in return.
While there is certainly no shortage of teams having goaltending problems - St. Louis, Detroit, Philly, etc. - I do not know if there is a deal that is imminent. While Halak has shown that he has a high trade value he is also showing how important he is to the Habs. A month ago, Price was on an incredible tear, playing solidly in ever start and also turning aside a huge number of pucks. But he stumbled against Minnesota and ultimately losing that game. This perhaps shows that while Price is an excellent goaltender, he is still young and will still make mistakes from time to time. Price is only 22 while Halak is 24. While 24 is also young, those extra two years can make a big difference in the development of a young goaltender. Are the Habs ready to hand the reigns over, full-time, to Price? Is Sanford or Desjardins an adequate back-up?
These are things that Gainey needs to figure out, however given that he has two young and talented goaltenders, it seems like a situation that cannot last forever. While both goaltenders are talented, there is no question that Price is the ultimate heir to the Habs goaltending throne and that Halak will be jettisoned. If Gainey plays his cards right, he could end up getting a very decent return for Halak. Let's see what the trade deadline brings.
3 - Metropolit the metronome. Aside from a few games where Metro took bad, game-costing, penalties, he has been as steady as any player on the team, this season. Last night, Metro potted his 9th and 10th goal of the season - putting him on pace for 21 on the season and 40 points to boot. Not shabby for an afterthought pick up last year by Gainey. While Lapierre was excelling as the Habs 3rd line center last year, he has clearly been surpassed by Metropolit this year. And at 1 Million dollars per season, Metro is a very cap friendly player. He plays 5 on 5, on the PP and on the PK, he is a great teammate, excellent with the media and does it all with a huge smile on his face. Gotta love it! He has met and exceeded expectations and is the glue that holds the 3rd line of Metro, Moen and MaxPac, together. Good on you, Metro!
4 - Markov is the General of this team. While the Habs powerplay had started to play better before his return, it has now become the #1 ranked PP unit in the league, since his return. Before last night's game, the Habs had the best road PP in the league and 2nd place overall PP. This morning - after scoring on 3 of 5 powerplays - he Habs are #1 in both categories and you can see Markov's influence on the pp. While MAB has had a great shot all year, he now has, in Markov, someone who can consistently set him up for a tape to tape blast from the point. In addition, teams now have to key in on Markov, as an additional weapon, on the PP - and he does it all. Markov can shot from the point, make a great cross ice pass, setup MAB for a one-timer, or pinch down low for an open net back-door goal. Between him, Plekanec and MAB, opposing PK units are finding the Habs pp too much to handle and that is great, because the Habs are not so great 5 on 5.
In addition to the PP, and speaking on 5 on 5, you can see Markov's influence on all aspects of the Canadiens game. Number 1 on that list of things that Markov does well, is to make a great 1st pass. The Habs, generally speaking, spend too much time in their own zone because they are difficulty getting the puck out. Markov, in contrast, is calm and smart with the puck in his own end. He is great as getting that first, quick pass to his forwards or carrying the puck into the neutral zone himself, to turn the play around to the offensive side of the game. With 4 points (3G, 1A) in 4 games so far this season, Markov is a holiday gift that keeps on giving!
5 - Scott Gomez looks like he might be turning a corner. With 10 points in his last 12 games - including 3 assists last night - Gomez might finally be finding his game again. Gionta - who just suffered a setback in his broken foot recovery - cannot come back soon enough. He and Gomez had obvious chemistry before his injury, and Gomez has looked lost without him. More recently, though, Gomez has started to makes some great plays again and looks like he might be coming out of his funk. Having a large Pouliot on his wing last night didn't hurt either. It will be interesting to see what Gionta, Gomez and Pouliot can produce together once Gionta is back.
6 - Pouliot might turn into a great acquisition. While I want to caution fans that we need to give him a few weeks to a month to get acclimated, Pouliot might become an excellent player for the Habs. Last night, in his first game with the Habs, Pouliot played 13:28 and had two shots on net. A decent debut for the young man who was admittedly nervous the night before. One thing that was apparent is that Pouliot has obvious skills. He has great hands and uses his 6'3" frame well on the ice. The other thing that was nice to see was that he was always going to the net, with or without the puck. This is something the Latendresse was never able or willing to do, for whatever reason, and if Pouliot can do that on a consistent basis it will be a welcome addition to the Habs lineup. You can tell by watching him, that Pouliot has a lot of raw talent. If Martin has some time to work with him, you get the feeling that he might be able to develop Pouliot into an excellent 2nd line player. Time will tell.
While the Habs won the game last night - and their third in a row - we have to keep things in perspective. The Canadiens were again badly outshot by their opposition, 47-25. This is not a good trend and it has been a problem for the Habs all season long. You cannot continuously be dramatically outshot and expect to be successful in this league. Giving up 40+ shots night after night is a recipe for disaster and/or goaltender burnout. It is apparent so far, as we approach the half way mark of the season, that unless Price and/or Halak stand on their respective head, the Habs don't win games. The games that the Habs win tend to be ones where they are badly outchanced but their goalie keeps them in the game long enough for the offense to get going. Ok if it happens once in a while but not is that is your gameplay night after night, as it is with the Habs. It is clear that something has to change and I think that a large part of the problem is that the Habs are a small and not very physical team. That, in combination with Martin's passive resistance system, means that the Habs will continue to spend too much time in their own zone until Gainey brings in larger personnel to help out.
The three-game streak is great but we must also remember that it is on the heels of a 5-game losing streak. Moving forward, the Habs have to start to play better than .500 hockey is they want to make the playoffs. Let's hope they can push the trend into that direction starting Saturday versus the Leafs.
Happy holidays all!
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