By Nick Murdocco
For the first time in a very long time, I enjoyed a hockey game in which the Montreal Canadiens were involved in a full 60 minute—plus five overtime minutes—loss.
Scratch that, although they lost this game in the shootout, the Canadiens may have won something more important: self-respect and a team mentality.
Many were predicting that without Alex Kovalev in the lineup, Montreal had no firepower left to battle the mighty Washington Capitals.
And please, don't take my use of "mighty" as sarcasm; the Capitals, with players like Ovechkin, Green, Semin, and Backstrom, are the real deal and should go very far in the playoffs.
But instead, the Canadiens proved one man does not make a team, and this is the crux behind everything Bob Gainey and his coaching staff have been trying to instil in this team.
The team, surely not unaffected by the recent shakeup Gainey had made—sending Sergei Kostitsyn and Ryan O'Byrne to the AHL as well as acquiring Mathieu Schneider and, of course, the much publicised ordered rest of Alex Kovalev—had no choice but to react, one way or the other.
How did they do?
They scored the game's first goal, something they've had trouble doing with any consistency.
Carey Price made some very key saves in a first period whirlwind that not only saw Washington take the eventual lead, but also included an Alexander Ovechkin highlight-reel goal. Regardless of that goal, Price had kept his team in the game, something he was unable to do during the Canadiens recent woes.
All of Kovalev's former linemates—Higgins, Plekanec, and Andrei Kostitsyn—got a goal, all scored on the Canadiens' power-play opportunities, which is another component that was stalled for quite some time now.
Did I mention that the Habs' leading scorer, Andrei Markov, who amassed a total of three points in his last eight games, ended the contest with three points on the night?
Speaking of the power play, didn't you like what you saw with Schneider on the point, making those crisp, precise passes onto his teammate's sticks, allowing the Habs to keep the puck active, something they have not been able to do lately?
The Canadiens did not give up when the opposing team took the lead—yet another rarity. There were no slumping shoulders, no nervous plays causing an overabundant amount of turnovers.
In fact, had it not been for that one missed faceoff that resulted in a tipped-shot that beat Price with minutes left in the third period, the Canadiens would have stolen two points away from a Washington team that did not let up for the full 65 minutes of play.
I will say this, however: Not having Kovalev or someone like Kovalev in the shootout was surely an element that was lacking last night.
Now, since his sitting out, there have been no fence sitters—groups have been split into either Gainey or Kovalev sympathizers. But only those two gentlemen know exactly what has been said; likewise, only those two know if having Kovalev sit at home is better for the team or not.
All we can do is speculate as to who deserved what or who shouldn't have done what, but one thing is for sure: So far, like it or not, the team has reacted in a convincing manner that tends to prove Gainey's point.
I'm not saying we don't need Kovalev, quite the contrary. The problem is that once you take off the Kovalev-colored glasses, he is not and has not been performing at the level he is expected to, and if this is propagating to the many younger players, then you might have an epidemic on your hands.
I think Bob, after one or two heart-to-hearts with his star forward, was finally forced to nip this situation in the bud.
I'm sure it was not a decision he wanted to make, but he made it, none the less. And he made it because Bob Gainey has always preached a "team first" mentality as opposed to individualistic play.
I was, admittedly, getting frustrated watching Kovalev try to out-deke three forwards and two defensemen from behind his own blue line, so it's fair to guess Bob and the rest of the team might have also caught on to that nuance as well.
And finally, a few parting statements in conclusion:
-If the Canadiens bring that same intense, forechecking/backchecking, solid game into Pittsburgh tonight, they will surely win against a team that is also going through some turmoil of their own.
-The Canadiens do still need either Kovalev (version 2007/08) or a reasonable facsimile in order to help in the scoring department
Regardless of the Kovalev situation, presently, the addition of Schneider, the eventual return of Alex Tanguay and Guillaume Latendresse, as well as the (perhaps) temporary subtraction of Sergei Kostitsyn and subsequent promotion of Gritty Gregory Stewart, makes this team better. Now they have to believe it.