Montreal 3 Vancouver 2 (Bell Centre)
What do we make of these Montreal Canadiens? They are unrecognizable from game to game, sometimes from period to period. Its rather odd to think "I haven't seen this team before" in game number 57 of the season.
The Habs are a team without a consistent identity. They make the business of predictable outcomes next to impossible. And throughout this season they have led their fans on an emotionally exhaustive ride.
Tonight, Montreal did what few thought they could. The Canadiens beat Vancouver, the third place team in the Western conference, ending their seven game winning streak. But, it wasn't simply that the Habs won the game. Rather it was how they played that made us take notice.
The Canadiens were on their heels from the start of the game. Jaroslav Halak made several big stops after some puck-handing misadventures. Then Sergei Kostitsyn dazzled with a slick move and a bullet shot to give the Canadiens an early lead.
With Mike Cammalleri sidelined with an uinjury, Sergei was promoted to the top line and played one of his best games of the season. He was the Canadiens most dangerous forward throughout.
"Others have to step up," said Kostitsyn. "I think I have to play like that every game, especially with Andrei and Cammalleri out."
Vancouver tied the game on a point shot from Mikael Samuelsson while on a four-on-three power-play. It was a goal that Halak probably wanted back as it was a long shot that bounced in and out of his glove.
The Canadiens regained the lead and some momentum before the end of the period Diligent work around the net by Mathieu Darche and Ben Maxwell got the puck to the crease. Max Lapierre batted in the rebound for his fourth goal of the season.
“We knew he was going to give rebounds in the slot,” Lapierre said. “We looked at the video before the game and we tried to shoot at his pads and skates, and that’s what happened on that goal.”
In the second period, again the Canucks come out strong with the Canadiens playing very passively, giving up the neutral zone and backing into their own end. Did they plan to protect a 2-1 lead so early in the game? Nine minutes passed before the Habs got their first shot on goal of the period.
And then, as if someone had finally found that elusive switch, the Canadiens started playing aggressive hockey for the last half of the period. Habs' players forechecked, cycled and protected the puck, and forced turnovers. Vancouver had their chances too. Bell Centre fans were treated to an excellent ten minutes of exciting back and forth hockey.
Coach Jacques Martin looked ill behind the bench as he watched. It was eye opening to see how good Canadiens players could play when not stifled by the passive system. Sergei Kostitsyn was perhaps the best example.
The Canadiens were under siege to open the final period. Halak was at his acrobatic best in the third, making 19 saves.
"I tried to do my best," said Halak. "You need to get lucky on some shots and that's what I was."
Midway through the period it was Sergei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot combining to keep possession of the puck in the offensive zone. Tomas Plekanec scored what turned out to be the winning goal as he was parked in front of the net to give the Canadiens a 3-1 lead.
Vancouver scored a power-play goal, their second of the game, with just over five minutes left to make things interesting. With just an assist between them and a combined minus two rating, Daniel and Henrick Sedin were effectively neutralized by the Plekanec line.
"Plekanec played most of the night against the Sedins and kept them off the scoresheet -- their goal was on a power play," said Martin. "They did enormous work."
While Kostitsyn, Plekanec and Pouliot were the top forward line, Ryan O'Byrne was the Canadiens best defenseman. O'Byrne logged almost 22 minutes of ice-time and led the Habs in hits and blocked shots with four each. He was a physical presence, cleared rebounds and made good first passes out of the zone.
Perhaps Jacques Martin doesn't believe that the Canadiens have the talent to trade chances with teams on a regular basis. But the style of play we witnessed tonight sure seemed to suit the current personnel much better than the system he has been using this season. The Habs were finally able to use their speed and puck skills to expose the opposition, in this case, a suspect Vancouver defense.
There is no question what side the Bell Centre fans would be on if they had a vote. This was as entertaining as any hockey game this season.
So was tonight's effort an aberration or a glimpse into the team that the Canadiens could be under the guidance of a new coach?
The Canadiens play next in Boston on Thursday night.
Rocket's three stars
1. Sergei Kostitsyn
2. Jaroslav Halak
3. Ryan Kesler
Special mentions: Tomas Plekanec, Ryan O'Byrne, Sami Salo
Material from wire services was used in this report.