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Thanks 2013-14 Habs

What a strange, amazing year 2013-14 was.

What started with so much promise quickly became a six-month long head-scratching festival, with the occasional dash of awesome. There were many Habs fans that didn’t understand why the Canadiens abandoned what made them so good in the lockout-shortened 2013 season in favour of a style of play that seemed to hold the team back. In the end, it all led to the what may be the ugliest 100-pt season in team history. But 100 points is 100 points. It’s not easy to reach that peak, and Michel Therrien did what he had to do to push the team there. Nitpickers, naysayers and haters would say that with different tactics, strategies, and personnel, 100 points could have easily been 110 points. Some people are very hard to please, apparently.

What followed the 82-game regular season was the most incredible, frustrating, and exhilarating playoff run the team has been on since their last cup win, 21 years ago. From sweeping the Lightning to vanquishing the evil Bruins in seven nail-biting games, to a hard-fought loss to the surprisingly amazing Rangers, Habs fans have a lot to cheer for and be proud about. Despite bowing out of the playoffs, it’s hard not to imagine that the best from this group is yet to come. Conjecture and opinions on how the team can get there is a topic for another day, but today is all about looking back on the season and appreciating what the team accomplished.

In Montreal, we like to say that it’s “Cup or nothing”. That’s bold, and it keeps the bar up where we all want it to be, but it’s also a point of view that ignores every incremental step on the way to victory. The Canadiens took some steps this year. I won’t pretend to know all of the steps required in order to be a Cup winner, but we saw this team battle adversity many times and come out on the other end with their identity, fighting spirit and most importantly, point totals intact. We saw elite players like Pacioretty, Subban and Price push their games to all-world levels. In the case of Subban and Price, we can’t ever quantify how a gold medal helps the quest for a Stanley Cup, but we can be sure that exposure to the game’s best and winning it all in the process is something that will certainly help. We saw guys like David Desharnais and Lars Eller raise their compete level to places we didn’t think they could, or would go. We saw late-season pick ups like Weise and Weaver make strong cases to stay with the team. We saw Rene Bourque make up for a season of futility (and making himself tradeable in the process?). We saw Alex Galchenyuk emerge as a difference maker.

We saw Dustin Tokarski.

We don’t have access to Bergevin’s road map, so we can’t know what he’s planning. He has a lot of personnel issues to resolve, the biggest of which is in signing PK Subban to a new contract. There will be plenty of time to talk about the free agent market (which is pathetic this year, best to avoid it if looking for big fish), and trades in order to improve the team, but for the first time in a long time, we can see the form of a contender taking shape. The core is young and talented. The farm is restocking with quality prospects that will be ready soon (or, immediately in the case of guys like Beaulieu, Tinordi, and Pateryn).

It’s safe to say that coming within 6 wins of the Stanley Cup pours cold water on those who were ready to run Therrien out of town. Those people were fully expecting a series loss to Tampa (oops). What they got instead was a giant helping of crow.

While we rolled out of bed this morning with the realization that the Habs won’t play another meaningful game until October, it’s nice to know that the plan that has been put in place is working and we should all be excited to see what’s around the corner.

Happy Landings, Bruins!

Don’t poke the bear? Why the hell not?

The Emperor is no more! Sauron has been defeated! Drago has been knocked out! Biff Tannen is wearing a truckload of manure!

For what feels like forever, the Bruins have been bullying and beating down the Habs with not just their size, but with goonery and cheap shots. Despite a bunch of regular season success against Boston, the 2009 sweep and 2011 seven-game heartbreak series still feels fresh. For a lot of guys, the physical beatings might feel fresher still. A little pay back was needed, not only for those playoff losses, but also for this type of dirty crap that has come to personify the Bruins more than the quality of their on-ice play:

On top of the joy of advancing to the conference finals, we got to do it at the expense of Boston. Their poor-sport fans, mopey, excuse-making media and sore loser skaters deserve to feel this loss, hard. It’s so sweet to know that the Bruins are being eaten up inside that they lost to the team that they’ve relentlessly tried to paint as weak, cowardly and dirty.

Eat it, Bruins. Eat it, and like it.

Lucic’s post-game petulance…fantastic. Iginla’s depression…love it. Marchand’s lack of words…fitting for a guy with a lack of goals.

As for our boys, it has been amazing to watch this team consistently up their game. THIS is what a championship team looks like. This is what a winner plays like. This is the what the best are willing and able to do to.

Michel Therrien has done a wonderful job in preparing his team for these playoffs. More than that, though, we’re seeing guys like Carey Price and P.K. Subban elevate to superstars right before our very eyes. We knew they had it in them, and many among us probably considered them as superstars. But now they’re doing it on National stage. The rest of the hockey world is taking note of these guys and they’re envious. On top of those two pillars, Pacioretty, Desharnais and Vanek woke up in the knick of time. Emelin has found his hard-hitting game. Beaulieu has plugged a major leak. Gallagher, Gorges, Weaver, Weise and Prust are providing the blood and guts. Brière is doing what he always does in the playoffs, same goes for Plekanec. Bourque is reborn. Eller has been a revelation. Anyone who thought the Habs were robbed in the Halak trade can crawl back under their rock.

There are no passengers. They’re all in.

Who knows what else this team has left to give. You’d think that given the recent history between the Rangers and Habs, that a trip to the Cup Finals is a lock. But these are the playoffs, and the Rangers are looking good. Better than good. But for today, we get to revel in a great victory against a hated rival that is going to have a long off-season of regret.

The Story to Here

Sometimes you need a good calling out, and thanks to a few loyal readers (who I’m very grateful for), I’m back posting my blatherings on the Habs, at least for today. With a life that has become uncomfortably busy in a short time, blogging has had to take a back seat while other priorities play themselves out. In my own defense, I have not been totally absent from the interwebs. For a couple of years now I’ve been posting my thoughts with the good folks at The Montreal Bias. Today’s topic was our thoughts on Daniel Briere, if you’re interested. While I cannot commit to post-game reviews as I did last year, I will try to post a little more regularly. Thanks for your patience and readership. It would be awfully dull ’round here without you.

So, where were we? Ah yes, enjoying the Habs sneakily solid 4-2 start. The stink from the opening night bust to the Leafs is long behind us, and the Habs have only lost once since, in a place where they haven’t won since the early 2000′s. A loss in Calgary was pretty much expected, so really it’s almost as if they’ve gone undefeated, right? They’ve weathered their Western Canadian swing in grand fashion, exceeding everyone’s expectations (and maybe even their own) with 3 wins in four games after tonight’s dusting of the Jets 2.0.

Pending the results of Max Pacioretty’s injury, the season has yielded more pleasant surprises than letdowns:

Galchenyuk, Eller and Gallagher: Simply brilliant. While they haven’t played every game together, they have each picked up from last year and are to-date the Habs most potent offensive weapons up front. They are dynamic, determined, skilled and most importantly, still getting better. Gallagher is still a Calder-runner up gem, Galchenyuk has risen to the top of the 2012 draft prospects list, and Eller is making Pierre McGuire duck for cover.

Other assorted Habs thoughts through 6 games:

P.K. Subban: Just nuts. Not much else can be said about the current Norris trophy holder. He’s been utterly dominant in all facets of the game, and currently leads NHL defensemen in scoring with 8 points in 6 games. He is still prone to the poor judgement penalty from time-to-time, but at this point, he’s going to force Hockey Canada brass to not only include him on the team but give him a starring role, which Habs fans know he’ll embrace. The only question, which media that follows the team seems reluctant to ask is why he doesn’t get more time on the penalty kill. It’s as mystifying as trying to figure out the people that don’t like Subban. Seriously, what’s wrong with you people?

Carey Price: It’s been feast or famine so far. He was pretty weak in his two losses, but rock solid in his wins. If he’s actively looking to make his case for starting goalie for Canada in Sochi, he’s going about it the right way. He looks efficient, and economical in his movements, which is exactly the way he needs to play in order to have success. He has a lot to make up for after last season’s collapse, but with a new goalie coach and a new approach, Price looks to be up to the task.

The Quota: Desharnais and Briere. Just terrible. Not an ounce of production from Desharnais, literally, and just two measly assists plus an empty netter from Bergevin / Molson’s “prized off-season acquisition”. Sure it’s still early, and it’s tough to complain when the team is off to another solid start. But when the EGG (hate that nickname) kids come back to earth (and they will), the veterans who are useless unless they are offensively productive had better start doing something. When Desharnais and Briere are sharing real estate with Ryan White, Brandon Prust, Michaël Bournival and the injured George Parros on the team scoring list, you know things have not gone according to plan. Even the most cynical of Habs fans didn’t think they’d be this ineffective. Yes, Briere may have had himself a two-point night tonight, but let’s be for real here, shall we?

Tomas Plekanec: Still under appreciated. While his offensive numbers aren’t staggering and although he’s won less than half of his faceoffs, he remains the team’s undisputed, unchallenged go-to guy in tough situations. Until and unless Lars Eller can unseat Plekanec as far as tough defensive assignments and minutes go, Plekanec will continue to be an indispensable piece of the Habs puzzle.

Team scoring: It’s a drum that I’ve been beating for a couple of years now, and this season will be no different until fans come to realize it: Dominance at even strength is king, while the importance of the powerplay is vastly and grossly overstated. The Canadiens are once again showing signs of being a team that will thrive at even strength, scoring 2 goals per game at 5-on-5. That they are well over 25% on the powerplay is nothing but a cherry on the sundae.

As a group: the Habs are still in a period of transition. Last season’s 2nd place finish was not a total mirage, but the late-season malaise was a strong clue that the team isn’t quite deep enough to compete at the highest level yet. Bergevin addressed this by adding some toughness, size and depth on the defensive end. Up front, hopes will be pinned on development of youth and veterans staying healthy. Nobody knows how this will pan out, so it’s hard to make a determination on where they will finish out the season. They could just finish 5th or 6th in the conference, they could be a bubble team and they may fail to make the playoffs entirely.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the Habs win, despite the apparent serious injury to Pacioretty (keep your fingers crossed that it isn’t as bad as it looked). A shutout for Price, and another two points in the bank.

Of Pixie Dust and Dandruff

The last week has seen a fine particulate matter fall over a large swatch of Quebec, and not all of it is from raging forest fires. What Marc Bergevin may consider as his magic pixie dust, is in fact merely a ton of dandruff caused by the incessant head scratching that Habs fans have been doing over the last week.

Whether confused over the “reach” of drafting Michael McCarron in the first round, or the brand new signing of the freshly bought-out Daniel Briere, Habs fans have had much to talk about in an offseason that is already producing more questions than answers.

By the time news broke late in the afternoon that the Habs had officially signed Daniel Briere to a two-year, eight million dollar deal, Habsland was already ablaze with opinion, most of leaning to the negative side. And who can blame the naysayers? While I jumped for joy when Bergevin dumped Erik Cole for Michael Ryder, I did so thinking that the cap savings would be put to better use. It’s not time to jump to conclusions yet, especially since Briere has not played a game for the Canadiens yet, but the signs on the surface are not encouraging. He’s become injury prone, is in decline and is limited in terms of what he brings to the table. All this on top of being yet another diminutive player on a roster stacked with small players.

There are many, many reasons to be disappointed in this move. There is a distinct sense that the “Habs need Quebecois stars” crowd has penetrated Bergevin’s thought process and struck a chord, especially on the heels of missing out on Lecavalier. I’m not so sure I buy that, but it’s always loomed like a large shadow over in Montreal whenever a French player is brought in. Age, slipping production, health, and size are all additional reasons to be concerned about Bergevin’s judgement in this move. When you consider that Briere will occupy the right wing along with Brian Gionta and Brendan Gallagher, you can’t help but shudder at how this will be a glaring weakness on the road and in the playoffs.

The contract itself isn’t suicidal. Two years at eight million isn’t absurd, but Bergevin is going to have to do more than cite “character and experience” as reasons as to why this move is a smart one for the Canadiens.

Briere’s best days are surely behind him, but the outrage is over the top. There’s a large contingent of Habsland that prefers being right than to see the Canadiens succeed, so these people will not issue any credit even if Briere does make his mark on the powerplay, in shootouts or anywhere else for that matter. Many of these same fans are also holding fast to their six-year-old-grudge when Briere rejected the Canadiens as a free agent. Many still are masking their fear with anger that Bergevin added a French player “as a PR stunt”.

However this plays out, it is not a move that will cripple the Canadiens. It’s no better than a sideways move, and it paves the way for the trade of other small players like David Desharnais, or Brian Gionta at some point. To think of the Canadiens carrying Briere, Desharnais, Plekanec, Gallagher, and Gionta at the same time is stupefying. To have five of nine forwards measuring less than six feet tall is a disconcerting thought to say the least, but let’s give Bergevin more credit than this. He has to know by now that this is untenable and maybe bringing in Briere is the first domino that will trigger a series of moves that sees the Habs kicking off the 2013-14 campaign as a better team.

We’ve long believed that Quebec-born players that return to Montreal to play with the Habs always seem to struggle under the weight of expectations. If we keep our expectations in check, and be honest with ourselves that a 50-point year from Briere would be a success, then this isn’t the end of the world. While Briere and Desharnais (while he’s here) will surely get tons of sheltered minutes, protection, offensive zone starts and more powerplay time than they probably deserve, we can hope that fulfilling a dream, as Briere put it, will help him find a late-career second wind that makes his addition a positive one, and not something that will be a constant, unerring source of frustration for the next two seasons.

It’s all we’ve got, right?

It’s Good To Have Options

With 6 picks in the first 90 overall selections at this month’s entry draft in New Jersey (pick #25 in the first round, picks #34, 36 and 57 in the second round, and picks #71 and 88 in the third round), Director of Scouting Trevor Timmins and his team (overseen by General Manager Marc Bergevin) have a lot of flexibility, should they decide to do something other than simply go buck-wild at the draft board.

It should be noted up front that Bergevin is an extremely strong proponent of building through the draft, and it’s more than likely that the Canadiens brass will let Timmins do what he does best and continue to stock the cupboards with young players with strong NHL potential.

For argument’s sake, let’s pretend that Bergevin and Timmins are considering their options. Would he bundle one or more of his picks in order to move up in the draft? Would he relish the opportunity to trade down and garner even more picks? Would they leverage some of their picks in a package with current roster players to land NHL-ready talent?

As vocal as he has been about using the draft to build the Habs, it’s likely that they are open-minded enough to consider what’s behind doors A, B, or C, should the opportunities present themselves.

Door Number 1 – Movin’ on Up

Let’s forget moving up in to the top ten. Despite rumors that Colorado and Edmonton are fielding offers for the first and seventh overall picks respectively, this sort of thing is to be expected. Both are teams that have been drafting high for years now with no real results to show for it and are simply fishing for a sucker GM who will give them the moon and stars for their pick. No doubt it would take the Habs first rounder, a second rounder, a strong prospect and a young roster player to even begin the discussion with either team. Pass. Timmins could decide to pick on Columbus, who currently hold the 14th and 19th picks in the first round. They too are rumored to be shopping their picks, no doubt in an attempt to help them be a sure-bet playoff team in 2013-14. It should also be noted that all three teams have recently had major shakeups in the front office. What GM doesn’t want to make a name for himself by being a mover and shaker at the draft?

While moving up may be a difficult task, The Canadiens do have the ammo needed to make a jump to anywhere from three to ten picks ahead of where they currently sit. They would only do this if they felt that there was a player that they absolutely HAD to have. In return, they’d have to give up their first rounder, and one of their early second round picks. I have all kinds of faith in the work of Trevor Timmins, so I’d be ok with this.

Door Number 2 – Quantity over Quality

It’s no longer a secret that you need a high volume of high-round draft picks if you want to be able to build a strong feeder system (see here for the painstaking details Part one | Part two). Given how the chances of finding an NHL player drop steeply after the first top-ten selections, they fall off the face off the earth in round two. This being the case, it would not make sense to trade down to scoop up more picks. If there’s a ‘but’ to this option, it’s that the Canadiens have one of the few guys able to find treasure outside of the first round. Want proof? P.K. Subban, Brendan Gallagher, Alexei Emelin, (the departed) Michael Ryder, Gabriel Dumont, (the soon to likely be departed) Yanick Weber and Ryan White were all drafted by the Habs outside of the first round. A mixed bag to be sure, but even if the list ended with Subban, Timmins has done a spectacular job of finding big talent outside of the agreed upon “elite”.

Do I like the “trade down” option? Not really, despite Timmins’ strong record. The only thing better than Timmins with a pocket full of draft picks is Timmins with a pocket full of early round draft picks.

Door Number 3 – Horse Trading

Ah, the draft day deal, otherwise known as the armchair GM’s favorite move. I remember being at the 2009 draft in Montreal. The only time the crowd was louder than when the Habs selected Louis Leblanc that night was when Bettman stepped up to the podium to announce the consummation of a trade (it was the Pronger-to-Philly deal).

Would the Canadiens consider moving their picks to bring in NHL-ready players (by this I mean established players of any age)? I think it’s all but certain that the Canadiens will never, under this administration, trade top picks for aging players. In a year where the salary cap is about to drop, there’s virtually no chance that the Canadiens will take on salary in exchange for cost-controlled assets. I find it doubtful that they’d trade picks for players of any calibre who are even approaching UFA status. What may be plausible is trading picks for young talent on entry-level deals who are either in need of a change, or their team badly covets a player from this year’s draft.

This option still runs counter to everything that Bergevin has said and counter to everything that today’s NHL is about: cheap, talented youth. The only option among the three above that makes any sense is that moving up in the draft without costing the organization any extra assets.

What say you?

Sink or Swim

One of the pillars of success in the salary cap era has been the reliance on young stars on entry level, or “bridge” contracts. Teams with Stanley Cup aspirations use their elite young talent to produce at seasoned-veteran levels to achieve their goals:

  • 2005-06 Hurricanes had Eric Staal and Cam Ward
  • 2006-07 Ducks had Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf
  • 2007-08 Red Wings yeah, well….
  • 2008-09 Penguins had Malkin, Staal and Letang on entry deals
  • 2009-10 Blackhawks had Toews, Kane, Byfuglien, Keith, Niemi and Ladd,
  • 2010-11 Bruins had Marchand, Krejci and Seguin
  • 2011-12 Kings had Quick

Ok, so the Wings and Kings didn’t have many raw rookies as key contributors but we know that Detroit has been an exception to the rule for 20 years now. The Kings, however, had Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick. You could probably insert other names and you could probably test the seaworthiness of the above claim, but by and large recent Cup winners have won by leveraging a burgeoning contingent of cheap, young, high-end talent. A core of highly paid veterans do (or should do) the real heavy lifting, while complimentary pieces round out the mix.

This year the Habs got massive contributions from their growing youth core. Down the stretch, and in to a brief playoff series, the Habs best players were the blossoming Lars Eller, the as-advertised Alex Galchenyuk, Calder candidate Brendan Gallagher and Norris candidate PK Subban (the Habs real season MVP). All four players are being paid a mere pittance of what their contributions indicate they ought to be paid.

There are those Habs fans who believe that considering the 28th place overall finish from just one year ago, that simply making the playoffs this season was more than enough of a step forward and olive branch to make up for last year’s gong show. That the team managed to finish second in the conference, and first in the Northeast division was at extra hot fudge sauce with five cherries on top. All told, the playoffs were a bonus, and win or lose, whatever happened, happened. When you lump in the widely-assumed belief that the Canadiens ‘Stanley Cup window’ is not quite yet open, then this season was just a five-month glimpse in to a very bright future. The glass half-empty view is that you need to strike when opportunity presents itself, and as a second-ranked home seed, they failed. Assuming that they will be a contending team in the future is a mug’s game, despite the widely held assumption that the Habs are a team on the rise. If you’re glass-half-empty, the Canadiens overachieved, caught teams off-guard and need to treat this year’s success as an aberration more than a new benchmark. Would taking a step back make more sense for the team’s long-term future. There are those who believe that to be the case.

Whatever side of the fence you live on, you had to be pleasantly surprised by the emergence of Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, who is up for the rookie of the year. You had to be blown away at how P.K. Subban took his game to yet another level, earning himself a Norris nomination. You had to be impressed with Therrien’s rebirth as a coach, and how Bergevin brought respect, credibility and fun back to the Habs in such a short time. We also saw that the defensive pipeline in Hamilton is preparing talent for the NHL, and the fruits of those labors will show themselves in Montreal sooner rather than later.

In Montreal, the goal is always the Stanley Cup. Even if we take in to account the last 15 years where marketing led us all to believe that 8th place was good enough, fans with long enough memories remember the one true goal. If the Habs want to take advantage of what’s left of the “cheap” end of their elite youth to reach that promised land, the veterans that get paid the big bucks need to produce to expectations not only through the regular season, but in to the playoffs as well. That means that Tomas Plekanec no longer gets the “defensive responsibility” free pass. Andrei Markov has to find a way to elevate his game in the post season at least once in his career. Carey Price has to elevate his game several notches. David Desharnais has to bring more than the nothing that he brought this season. Max Pacioretty has to play like the power forward that he used to be.

If this doesn’t happen, then we’ll be right back in this same spot next year wondering what went wrong with the team.

If You Only Read One Habs Blog Post

…make it this one.

Friend and fellow blogger @Habswatch once again hits pay dirt with an insightful and data-driven (read: not skewed by lazy opinion) piece.

No player has polarized Habs fans in recent memory like Carey Price has; you either love him to itty-bitty pieces, or you want his head on a pike. His ardent supporters say that he’s young, has elite talent and a growing body of work that will only continue to impress. They say his defense is the main reason for his failings. His critics say that he’s paid among the elite, has accomplished nothing at the NHL level and has fallen woefully short of lofty expectations.

In his piece, HabsWatch doesn’t only put Price’s 2013 season in to perspective, he puts his entire career in to focus in relation and context to his peers. The results may shock you, as they did for me.

If you want the real deal on Price, then I urge you to take 10 minutes to read HabsWatch’s piece. Drink in the evidence and then share it with your friends. I promise that it is well worth your time.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Regular season game #48

Canadiens coach Michel Therrien decided that resting key players was not as important as going all out to win the division. He did not rest any of his key players except for Carey Price, feeling that going for second place in the conference was the priority. As has been the case for the most part this year, his decision turned out to be the correct one.

Led by Lars Eller, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher once again, the Canadiens regained a measure of confidence against the Leafs, who had inflicted the season’s worst beatings on the Canadiens. If Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul’s claim that the Leafs were the bigger and tougher team riled the Canadiens (despite the validity to the claim), then we can thank the injury prone big mouth for giving the Canadiens something to prove.

The Canadiens were clearly the better team all night, holding a listless Leafs team to just 17 shots in the entire game, including just one shot in the second period while they built a 3-1 lead. Once the Habs took a 4-1 lead early in the third period, the Leafs did what you’d expect. They tried to batter and pummel the Habs. Referees Wes MacAuley and Marc Joannette had to know that was inevitable; they cut off all antics at the pass, issuing game misconducts to both Frazer McLaren and Clarke MacArthur for things that would have otherwise been let go under different circumstances.

Fans always tell themselves whatever they need to in order to feel good about their team’s chances in a given situation. So if the Leafs and Habs do end up playing each other next week, both sides will have supporting arguments that seem entirely valid in their own minds. If you’re a Leafs fan, you tell yourself that you won the season series 3-2, including a 2-1 season-opening game in enemy territory, and two humiliating beatdowns in which they outscored the Canadiens 11-1. You tell yourself that the bigger Leafs will quickly wear down the smaller Canadiens. If you’re a Habs fan, you say that you won the final game of the year in convincing manner, that there is little connection between head-to-head regular season success and playoff success, that the Canadiens were fundamentally sound for most of the season while the Leafs were not, despite their winning record.

We don’t know who the Habs will play yet, but it has to provide Habs fans with a substantial measure of relief that the Canadiens won their last two games by a combined score of 8-3 when previously to that they were unable to do anything right. They look playoff-ready, which is the most important thing. Now we find out if the Canadiens perceived lack of size will be a problem, or if they will able to dig deeper and buck conventional wisdom.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

Ugly, but Effective

Regular season game #44

Well I’m glad that’s over. The losing streak that is.

While beating Tampa Bay is hardly reason to doll up Ste-Catherine street for a Cup parade, or even declare that all is well, the two points were paramount. Though it’s been less than a week since their last win, the Canadiens badly needed to remember what it feels like to win a game at this point of the season.

Credit is spread far and wide tonight, starting with Carey Price’s goalposts, which sent no less than four resonating “PINGS!” throughout the Bell Center. For his part, Carey Price had a number of huge saves, several of the game saving variety. He looked like himself, not a moment too soon. Galchenyuk scored a goal for the fifth consecutive game, and Gallagher picked up an assist on the play. Still it is rather odd that Galchenyuk’s ice time was the lowest on the team given his recent productivity; this defies logic, as does David Desharnais’ 5:44 of powerplay time. As a side note, it was a pleasant surprise to see the game begin with Pacioretty alongside Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta. David Desharnais has had more than enough time to reestablish chemistry with the big winger. Tonight, however, the biggest pat on the back goes to the aforementioned Brian Gionta, who has been feeling heat recently. It was his ability to finish that finally put the stop to a gushing wound. For someone who is either criticized for his size, his production and his “leadership qualities”, Gionta once again showed how to answer all three of those criticisms.

Not all has been set right, however, as the defensive side of the game still plays to the tune of Yakety Sax, and special teams have been especially bad, winning goal notwithstanding. There is still a lot of work to do, and a lot of question marks surrounding the defense. Markov looks horrendous, and Bouillon, bless his heart, cannot hack top-four minutes. Diaz is reported to be a possibility for Saturday night, but he’s no Hal Gill. If and when the defensive game gets tightened up, the Habs will be alright. Until then, fans will be bambi-legged, even if the team will sleep very soundly tonight. Won’t you? After all, a fourth consecutive loss with the smoking Capitals coming to town on Saturday wouldn’t leave you feeling cozy, would it?

Before we sign off, let’s remember that this was the team’s fourth game in six nights, and they have had very little practice time recently. For a team that needs structure in order to thrive, this cannot be overlooked. The tight schedule is punishing the Habs, but they still sit in first place in the Northeast division.

No harm, no foul….right?

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

They’re Dead, Jim

Regular season game #40

Whatever you do, don’t let this game get the better of you. Yes, it’s fun to watch the Habs run roughshod and totally dominate an opponent, but let’s be honest: the Sabres have quit. They had no will to compete tonight and once the Habs took a 2-0 lead, the game was over. The Habs outshot the Sabres 42-15, just to give you an idea of where the action was in this game; I’m not even sure if the zamboni passed in the Habs end of the rink. The Sabres were wildly undisciplined, granting the Habs eight powerplays. Some teams don’t get eight powerplays in three games, so it’s safe to say that the Sabres were more intent on making this a street fight rather than forcing the Habs to wait one more night to punch their playoff ticket.

But we’re not going to penalize the Habs for the unwillingness or inability of an opponent to compete, so on with the accolades for the night, yes? You could blindly pick any member of the team and find something nice to say about their game tonight. The usual suspects like Subban, Plekanec, Gallagher, Pacioretty and Ryder all made substantial contributions to the score sheet, but let’s reserve a measure of praise for Francis Bouillon, who stood up for Brendan Gallagher by taking on Sabres agitator Steve Ott after the latter delivered a high hit to the Habs rookie. By the book it was a clean hit, and I’ve never been ok with a player having to fight after delivering a by-the-book hit, but Steve Ott was looking for trouble all night, and it’s a comfort that Francis Bouillon took on the job of dispensing some justice. In my opinion, he earned his recent one-year extension on that scrap alone.

Tonight’s win finally clinched the playoff spot that we knew the Habs would secure back in late February, but now that they’re in, we can concentrate on winning the division and starting the playoffs with home ice advantage – a virtual necessity to winning the big prize. The win was also important because it showed once again that the Canadiens are a very resilient team that does not take to losing lightly, and with the playoffs around the corner, avoiding prolonged losing skids might come in pretty handy as you might imagine. Tonights two points also vaults the Habs past the Bruins once again and in to the Northeast division lead. With just eight games remaining, it will go down to the wire to see who takes the division crown.

The Leafs on deck Saturday night, we’ll get a potential first round matchup preview, although the two teams will meet each other for the final time at the end of the regular season. Rest assured that both teams know the potential to bump in to each other in the post-season and will be looking to get in to each other’s heads.

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