Toronto 5, Montreal 2 (Bell Centre)
posted by Rocket
I'm sure that the players on the Montreal Canadiens came to the rink with the intention of playing well tonight. Bob Gainey made his game preparations carefully weighing each decision. Fans, while nervous, arrived at the Bell Centre thinking that this would be the night of the great turnaround and march to the playoffs.
But with the Canadiens being a fragile team, it didn't take much to undo the best intentions.
With only 1:29 elapsed in tonight's game, the unraveling began. A backhand by Nikolai Kulemin was stopped by Jaroslav Halak. The puck sat near the line. Without anyone near him, it took at least three frantic stabs by Halak to coral the puck with his glove. But had the puck crossed the goal-line?
A video review proved inconclusive. The goal was waived off. The Habs had dodged a bullet. But it was like some of the air had been sucked out of the Bell Centre. The fans were more nervous. The goaltender was jittery.
Just over six minutes later Kulemin got his goal back. Ryan O'Byrne did a good job tying up his man at the blue-line but the forwards were late coming back. Halak didn't have a chance on the play.
Twenty-three seconds later Halak allowed a terrible goal. It was reminiscent of the goal he gave up to Brian Rolston the week prior against New Jersey. Mikhail Grabovski threw the puck at the net while being checked by O'Byrne. The shot went through Halak. He seems to lose the net behind him occasionally.
The nervous crowd began to turn hostile. The Canadiens were deflated.
A second bad goal on a weak wrist shot by Alexei Ponikarovsky beat Halak just over three minutes into the second period. The Habs stopped skating and were losing battles for the puck all over the ice.
Ponikarovsky would score again as he found himself all alone in front of the net on a power-play. Halak was playing deep in his net and having some trouble tracking the puck.
Gainey made some adjustments to his forward lines that provided some jump and brief hope for the fans. Chris Higgins won a race for the puck and thew a hard pass to the net that was tipped by Max Lapierre to make the score 4-1 for the Leafs.
Lapierre scored again two and a half minutes later on a play started on a takeaway by O'Byrne. Alex Tanguay carried the puck over the Toronto blue-line and set up Lapierre with a terrific cross ice pass.
The Canadiens had some life and had several more scoring chances until the end of the second period. Fans began to chant again.
The excitement was short-lived as the Leafs scored another power-play goal just over four minutes into the third period. Jason Blake beat Halak's glove hand with a stoppable shot.
Special teams were again a problem for the Canadiens. The Leafs were 2-for-5 on the power-play. The Habs were 0-for-3 on their man-advantage opportunities.
Lapierre, Higgins and Tanguay were the best forwards for the Canadiens. Saku Koivu was dominant in faceoffs at 71 percent.
Halak did not play well. He has now allowed six soft goals in his past two starts and eight goals in total.
Georges Laraque was useless tonight. Sergei Kostitsyn deserves to be recalled from Hamilton.
The Rangers and Hurricanes won and increased their advantage. With the Panthers and Sabres losing, the Canadiens remain in eighth place despite losing their fifth in a row.
There is no magic formula to the Canadiens getting out of their funk. They must win, and win in a convincing manner.
Starting lineup: Lapierre, Latendresse, Kostopoulos, O'Byrne, Hamrlik
Jaroslav Halak and Martin Gerber started in goal.
Ryan O'Byrne returned to the lineup along with Georges Laraque.
Brisebois, Stewart, D'Agostini and Dandenault were scratched from the line-up. Bouillon and Lang were out with injuries.
Rocket's three stars
1. Alexei Ponikarovsky
2. Nikolai Kulemin
3. Mikhail Grabovski
(photo credit: AP)