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Sweet Relief

Regular season game #20

It felt like a carbon copy of Monday’s game in Ottawa. The Habs dominate all over the ice, but don’t finish where it counts, thus leaving the door open for opposition to steal another point or two. For the second game in a row, the Habs hit the 40 shot mark, but earning the win was harder than it needed to be thanks to strong opposition goaltending.

A little bit of luck, and a lot of discipline helped the Habs improve to 7-0-2 since the last time the Habs met the Leafs. The Leafs tried to go with the same rough and tumble game plan that had worked so well in previous meetings, the difference this time is that the Habs didn’t rise to take the bait, and the refs handed out a five minute major to Mike Brown on a boarding call that was more about curbing the Leafs cheap goon hockey before it got out of hand.

Flames doused, game plan busted.

When the Leafs managed to tie the game at two goals apiece, the sense of frustration among Habs fans was palpable, as their team was clearly better and deserved better than a tie. If the copycat act from Monday night’s game was to continue, things weren’t going to end well. But the Habs played a near-perfect road game, and they’ll win far more than they lose if they continue to play like this. To follow up on a stat I’ve been tracking all year, the Habs have now won the faceoff battle in 6 of their last 7 games. The only game they lost was Monday’s tilt in Ottawa, and the only game where they lost the faceoff battle was Saturday vs the Rangers where the Habs were clearly the better team en route to a 3-0 shutout.

With a 5-1-2 road record, and a warm seat at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, it’s getting harder and harder to not acknowledge that this team is for real, especially on the heels of the season’s most satisfying win.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

The Wayback Machine

Regular season game #9

Once in a while, old demons come back to haunt. Tonight’s game very much resembled the Habs team from years past, where they’d grab a paper-thin lead while playing some decent hockey, only to wilt in the face of opposition for the rest of the way. It only took the Bruins a couple of minutes at the start of the third period to take a 2-1 lead that looked as close to impenetrable as it gets.

Tonight would be a good reminder that the Canadiens, despite their 6-3 start, are less than a year removed from the worst season in memory. They’re moving in the right direction, but they just aren’t there yet. That said, the outcome could have been different. The first line had a rough night. Plekanec can generously be described as being absent minded on both Boston goals, Erik Cole looks like he has lost half a step, and Pacioretty alone can’t carry them.

As for the old bugaboos of turnovers and faceoffs, the Canadiens actually did pretty well, considering they normally suck in both categories. The tale of the faceoff tape, though was a very two-sided story. While Plekanec and Eller combined to go 18 for 31, Desharnais and Galchenyuk combined to go just 8 for 29.

There’s no sense in dwelling on this game, as there is another engagement in less than 24 hours from now in Buffalo. The story is simple: the Habs charged hard at the start, wasted their chances, or were stoned by Rask and often that comes back to bite. The good news is that they did generate quality chances…they just need to bury them, starting tomorrow against the Sabres. And for further silver lining, the Bruins actually stuck to hockey and left the thug antics back in Boston for once. Hockey is a lot more enjoyable when teams stick to hockey. Who’d have thought?

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

Striking Back

Regular season game #3

After splitting their first two home games, the Habs ducked the intense cold of Montreal for the warmer climes of Washington to play the Capitals, who thoroughly dominated Montreal last season. The Habs went 0-4 against Washington and were outscored 13-3 in the four games. Given that the Habs were a dismal team, how would they fare against a Capitals team desperate for their first win?

Well, to put it mildly: the Caps stink this season. What a mess they’ve become. Not to dwell on the opposition, but their coaching carousel has not panned out the way they had hoped. Exploding for four goals in the second period (which is one more goal than they scored all year against the Caps last season), the Habs played a perfect road game, right up until, and including Prust’s bout with the game well in-hand. Another message sent.

Montreal weathered the early storm, avoided getting burned ny penalties, and Markov’s brilliance staked the Habs to a lead that the inept Caps could not hope to overcome. A late goal by Gorges effectively sealed the deal as the home town fans darted for the exits.

And what of young messers Galchenyuk and Gallagher? Credit Coach Therrien for having his finger on the pulse of the game and giving more ice time to the rookies as the lead grew larger and safer, including over a minute of power play time to close out the game.

All told, it was as solid a road win as you can ask for at any point during the season. If there’s anything to nitpick, it would be another poor night at the faceoff circle. The Habs went 25 for 55 for a 45% success rate. They also had twice as many giveaways than takeaways (8 vs 4 respectively). Being on the wrong side of those stats while winning can’t go on forever, especially when the competition gets tougher than it has been through three games.

Two players that need to up their game are Ryan White and David Desharnais. While White was mostly applauded for jumping Tomas Fleischmann on Tuesday, he seemed to cross the fine line that Michel Therrien later alluded to. Lars Eller may have found himself an opening to the roster on Sunday evening. As for Desharnais, it seems teams are no longer surprised by him. He has made some good things happen, but a top line center needs to bring more to the table than he has.

These were two points that I don’t think many were counting on. For all the Caps’ struggles, the Habs had become the tonic for what ailed slumping teams. With Therrien’s new system and culture, playing tougher seems to be giving the team the backbone that it has so badly lacked since 2009. Three games don’t make a season, but it sure looks like the Canadiens aren’t going to be the flaccid team that skulked around the ice under Jacques Martin. That in itself is a giant step forward.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

Lars Who?

Regular season game #2

I kid, I kid. No matter the result, or how you slice it, the decision to make Lars Eller a healthy scratch is a baffling one. Coaches get let off the hook if their choices lead to a win, so we won’t dwell on this but let’s pray that young Eller finds his way back in to the lineup right away. After all, Therrien himself said that young players have to play.

Following Saturday’s loss to the Leafs, the top two lines were deemed to be AWOL for the most part, from top-to-bottom. Not so tonight. Plekanec opened the scoring on a sweet feed from Brian Gionta and David Desharnais reported for duty with a great bit of pocket-picking along the boards to start the play that led to Markov’s power play goal…his first goal with the Habs in a long, long time. We could choose to mention the lazy penalty that Desharnais took to start the second period which led to Florida’s first goal, but we’re trying to enjoy the season’s first win, right?

Suffice it to say that that was the start that Habsland was expecting for the season opener. Better late than never, especially in a season where falling behind the pack early is more or less a death knell. The second period started the way you thought it would given the Habs inconsistencies. They took an early penalty, gave up a goal and surrendered some momentum…that is until Markov put the Habs back up by two, followed by a beauty of a tip by newcomer Alex Galchenyuk for his first NHL goal (also of note was Brendan Gallagher’s NHL point on the goal).

The third period unfolded the way you thought it would. The Habs sat back on a 4-1 lead and in doing so took some penalties, but none as severe as the five-minute major taken by Ryan White when he jumped Tomas Fleischmann for running Gorges in to the boards. If one of Michel Therrien’s intentions is to make the Bell Center an inhospitable place to play for the opposition, then sometimes what White did is a necessary evil. Price (who was again spectacular) and friends made the rest look easy en route to their first win.

If This is the game template that Michel Therrien wants to move forward with then we may see some nice things this season. Though with one dodgy game and one strong game in books, we still have no idea who the real Habs are. In the quest for 8th place, the Habs took the first step forward, and it was a mandatory one. With 6 of their next 9 games at the friendly confines of the Bell Center, they absolutely must rack up wins before going out on the road where recent history shows they suffer badly. They were able to impose their will on the Panthers and their season rides on their being able to do the same on the road.

New Year, Same Feeling

Regular season game #1

After a season that saw the Habs effectively out of the playoffs by Christmas, and a lengthy lockout, it had been over a year since seeing the Canadiens play a meaningful game. The excitement was there, as the fresh air and positive vibes brought by the new regime had yet to blow over. After the puck dropped, however, it was the same old, same old.

The Habs started slowly, and didn’t sustain any offense until the third period when they were already down 2-0 to the Toronto Marlies Maple Leafs. They couldn’t stay out of the box  early, and Michel Therrien didn’t help things by using aging rearguard François Bouillon for more than three and a half minutes on the power play. I thought familiarity was supposed to breed contempt? Apparently not in this case. That’s not to say that Bouillon was to blame for the team’s loss. For a team that has adopted “NO Excuses” as the motto for the year, it’s going to be an awful lot of fun watching people try to invent excuses on their behalf. Can’t call it rust, and we can’t say it was injuries. The first line was saggy all night, the second line was full of beans, but lacked coherence and the the bottom six can only do so much when it comes to scoring. The defense was only passably decent, and thank goodness for Carey Price (stop me if you’ve heard this before).

In a compressed schedule, we won’t have to wait very long to see where this season is going. If the Canadiens start out with a few consecutive losses, they’ll face a daunting climb to the playoffs. There is no room for three or four game losing streaks, and to go a few games without any points at all is the kiss of death. There is no such thing as “it’s still early”, and “there’s still time”, and thank goodness for that, as deluded Habs fans were still hung up on that lame edict after 50-something games in to last season’s debacle.

The Panthers are in town on Tuesday and it is critical that the Habs get in the win column. Why? Because they play 8 of their first 11 games at home. For a team that was absolutely ghastly on the road last year, they need to make hay at the Bell Center, or it’s curtains. Falling to 0-2 on home ice is something that can’t happen.

Not-so-bold predictions: some time soon we will see Habs fans on twitter asking for the lockout to be put back in to effect, and we’ll also see a litany of unfunny “did anyone tell the Habs that the lockout is over?” tweets. Book it. In fact, I’m sure if you look hard enough, those “jokes” were already made last night.

Still, all this being said, it was nice to see hockey back. But it’s time for the Habs’ rubber to hit the road or it will be panic time again.

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