Well that was unexpected, don't you think?
The city of Montreal has been buzzing about the Canadiens, recently, and for all of the wrong reasons. While Mike Cammalleri's knee injury - he will not require surgery but will be out for six weeks - has been the talk of the town, it certainly hasn't been the only topic of discussion.
In addition to Cammalleri, the city has been buzzing about whether there was a yelling match between Price and Markov, a few weeks ago, along with thoughts of locker room dissension. Whispers have been spreading about a goaltending controversy as Halak continues to show he is the Habs number one. Stories have been told about Gainey having a deal in place to acquire Vincent Lecavalier, this past summer, in exchange for Plekanec, Price and a prospect.
So with all that has been going on over the last week, and after two dismal performances in Florida and a loss in Ottawa, one would expect the Habs to be blown out of the rink by the mighty Vancouver Canucks last night. That, however, wasn't the script that played out.
Despite missing two of their top-6 forwards - Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn - the Habs demonstrated a strong, balanced attack and managed to win the game with contributions from unlikely heroes.
While the Habs were dominated for large parts of the game - they didn't get their first shot till around the five minute mark of the game - Halak held the fort long enough for their offence to get going.
The Habs opened the scoring at 5:56 of the first period as Pouliot - who was playing on a line with Plekanec and Sergei Kostitsyn - recovered a Sergei Kostitsyn turnover at the blueline. He passed the puck back to SK74 who cut from the right faceoff circle to the high slot and roofed a beauty over a screened Luongo to make it 1-0 for the homeboys.
Three minutes later, after offsetting minors to Bergeron and Hordichuk, Weber - who was paired with Hal Gill - took a tripping penalty to give Canucks a 4-on-3 powerplay. A quick pass from Daniel Sedin to Samuelsson at the point - who drilled it past a screened Halak - tied the game at one.
But the Habs weren't done yet.
With less than two minutes to play in the period, the Habs fourth line scored a rare goal to give the Habs the lead again. With the Canucks backed up in their own end, Darche grabbed the puck in the corner and swept behind the net, throwing the puck out front to a streaking Lapierre who popped it past Luongo for a 2-1 lead.
The Canucks were buzzing again to start the second period, however, and Halak was equal to the task, making two point-blank saves on Daniel Sedin before the period was two minutes old.
As an aside, I have to say that it is a thing of beauty to watch how well the Sedin brothers are synched. They know, almost by some other worldly power, where each other will be on the ice at all times. It is like a dance or a beautiful piece of poetry where everything is in its right place and the world is the way it should be.
After getting their first shot of the second period, again around the six minute mark, the Habs took the play to the Canucks and the game became wide open. The Habs, to the delight and surprise of the crowd, became the aggressors. Plekanec's line, in particular, was causing all kinds of problems for the Canucks all game long.
While the shots were 27-19 for Vancouver after two periods, the Habs led 2-1 and increased their lead to two goals at 9:14 of the third period.
Playing 5-on-5 with offsetting minors to Weber for tripping and Kesler for diving, SK74 zipped around the Canucks net and passed the puck to Plekanec in the slot. Pleky fought off a check to get one, two, three chances and final deposits the puck behind a sprawling Luongo, for his 14th of the season and a 3-1 lead.
There was a key moment in the third as Darche took a four minute high sticking penalty with nine minutes left in game. But the Habs penalty killers were solid and none were better than Halak who shut the door for three of the four minutes.
With about one minute left in the penalty, however, Kesler, standing in front of Halak, deflected the puck off his face, then batted it past Halak with his stick, to make it a one goal game with 5:48 to go.
There was a scary moment for the Habs as Sergei K. went to the dressing room with 1:30 left in the game, favoring his right hand. Fortunately for the Canadiens, SK74 returned a minute or so later, no worse for wear.
With the goalie pulled, the extra attacker on the ice and the Cauncks pressing hard for the tie, Vancouver's Alex Burrows took a goaltender interference penalty giving the Habs a powerplay and sealing the deal.
Final score: Habs 3 - Canucks 2.
1 - If there were any doubts about Halak, allow me to dispel them: Halak is the Habs number one goaltender and Price is his backup. Or at least that is the way it should be. In stopping 45 of the 47 shots he faced on the evening, Halak again showed why the Habs have to put their playoff hopes in his hands.
The time for playing favorites and trying to give Price a chance are over. With 25 games remaining in the season, Halak should play the lion's share. Halak has shown all season long that he has 'arrived' as a bonafide number one goaltender in this league, while Price still struggles with consistency.
Don't get me wrong, as I still think that Price has a higher potential ceiling than Halak, but he is just not at the same level of development. I have said it many times before and it is a truism that goaltenders don't tend to ripen until they are around 24 to 26 years of age. So people, please, let's stop talking about trading Price. Give him a few years and he'll get there. Squeeze him too hard, and we might watch him raise the cup on another team, in another city!
Getting back to Halak though, there is no question that he is a valuable commodity and IF the Habs make the playoffs, it will be on his back. Unless the Habs fall seriously out of playoff contention, I don't see a scenario where they can afford to trade him or Price until the off season.
For now, Halak's 2.43 goals against average and his sparkling .929 save percentage are the only reasons the Habs are still hovering around the 8th and final playoff spot in the East.
2 - Hello, Sergei Kostitsyn and welcome back! Sergei Kostitsyn was a difference maker tonight and his performance could not have come at a better time. With Cammy out for six weeks, his brother Andrei on the sidelines, and no one not named Pouliot, Plekanec, Gomez or Gionta able to score for the Habs, SK74 picked the perfect time to show up.
Last night, Sergei looked like the player of two seasons ago. The rookie who joined the team mid-season and went on a tear. Every time he was on the ice he was making plays, displaying great moves and was generally a thorn in the Canucks' side.
In a way, all of the injuries might be a blessing in disguise if, as a result, Sergei gets more ice-time and rediscovers the player of two seasons ago that helped the Habs rise to first place in the East.
Along with Halak and Plekanec, SK74 was one of the best players on the ice last night. All night long he made things happen and his line - with Plekanec and Pouliot - looked great together.
Plekanec and Sergei are fast, shifty players and Pouliot used his size to make room for them. The result was a goal and an assist for Sergei, two assists for Pouliot and a goal for Plekanec. If that combination can maintain their level of play, the Habs just might be able to make it through the net six, Cammalleri-less, weeks unscathed.
3 - O'Byrne played his best game in a Habs uniform. Now paired with Andrei Markov, O'Byrne looks like a player coming into his own. While OB struggled mightily last season, his confidence is swelling this year and it shows on the ice. O'Byrne looked solid, last night, poking the puck out of danger on more than one occasion and deflecting and blocking shots all night.
His combination of size and grit make him a great pairing for Markov, much like Komisarek in the past. And, like Komisarek, OB's job is made a lot easier because of Markov. They say that you should never give up on a young defenseman, as the position takes a long time to master at the NHL level. With O'Byrne, the proof seems to be in the pudding, and, like a fine wine, he is getting better with age.
4 - The fourth line scored! Unbelievably, the Habs have generally speaking been getting zero production from the third and fourth lines. Last night, however, Lapierre and Darche combined to create problems for the Vancouver defense. The result was a rare goal for Lapierre - his fourth of the season - who looked like the Lapierre of last season: Fast, shifty, causing problems for the opposition.
5 - Maxwell looked like a nervous rookie for most of the night. He even passed the puck to Gomez on a great scoring chance, in the second, when he should clearly have taken a shot. For most of the game he didn't look comfortable out there and maybe even seemed a little intimidated.
He did, however, start getting better as the game went on and was more noticeable in the second period. Hopefully he can continue to gain confidence and click with Gomez and Gionta as the Habs need two scoring lines in order to have any hope.
Standings and Next Game:
The win pushes Montreal into sole possession of 7th overall in the East with 58 points. They are two points behind Philly - who has three games in hand - and one point ahead of Tampa, Florida and the Rangers who have two, one and zero games in hand, respectively. Just behind that group are the Thrashers with 56 points and two games in hand on Montreal.
The Habs now enjoy one well earned day off before taking on the Bruins in Boston on Wednesday the 3rd. Including last night's 4-1 loss to the Caps, the Bruins have now lost eight games in a row. Incredible but true.
So the Habs should win this one against the Bruins, no? Shouldn't this be a walk in the park versus a reeling opponent? Well, if there's one thing the Habs have shown this season, it is the ability to do exactly the opposite of what you expect from them. I am not saying that this means they will lose against the Bruins. However just because it looks like a game that they should win, it doesn't mean they will!
Jekyll or Hyde? Tune in Wednesday to find out which version of the Canadiens shows up in Boston.
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