Don't look now, but your Montreal Canadiens are on a mighty three-game winning streak! Not that a three-game streak is the end of the world or anything. What is more important than the wins is the manner in which they were won.
Don't be fooled by the 5-3 final score or the 31-28 shot advantage that Tampa enjoyed, because the game wasn't that close.
In fact, the game wasn't close at all, as the Canadiens simply dismantled the usually tough-for-the-Habs -to-play-against Lightning.
With homeboys Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and Alex Tanguay in town, things are usually difficult for the Habs as those guys tend to play the role of giant-killer against the Habs .
Not last night, however, as Montreal dominated Tampa in every aspect of the game from the opening faceoff .
The Habs got on the board early as Glen Metropolit fired in a brilliant Scott Gomez pass on the powerplay to make it 1-0.
Gomez was again in on the action, scoring an unassisted goal as he walked in alone off the half boards, to make it 2-0. After that, the floodgates opened up.
The Habs got a goal from Pouliot and two from Darche to respond to Tampa's Steven Stamkos , Scott Walker, and St. Louis, in closing it out 5-3. But the thing that was amazing was how strongly the Habs controlled the play and how few scoring chances Tampa had.
Jaroslav Halak wasn't really tested early in the game, but came up big in the third as Tampa came to life a little. The big story of the game, however, was that the Gomez line continued to be on fire and that the third and fourth line players continued to contribute for the Habs .
Now if only they could get line No. 1 going, they could become a force to contend with .
Final score: Habs 5 - Lightning 3
1. Halak did his job. After receiving the Habs' Molson Cup for January and February before the game started—based on leading the three star selections for the Habs—Halak was treated to a relatively easy night.
For a rare time this season, Halak didn't have to stand on his head in order for his team to win. What he did do, however, was make the key saves that he needed to, in the third, to keep Tampa at bay despite having a sleepy first two periods.
I have said it before and will say it again: Elite goaltenders make key saves at key times and that is what sets them apart from the pack. Now, I am not saying that Halak is necessarily an elite goaltender yet, but he certainly seems to be heading that direction.
Jacques Martin needs to ride him until he loses or has a bad game. Carey Price's time will come, but it will not be this year.
2. Hello, Scott Gomez and welcome to the party! While Gomez spent the first two thirds of the season giving fans every reason to complain about his ridiculous eight million dollar salary, he has spent the last two weeks making them forget all about it.
I find it amazing how a player's salary can become so important when they are not producing and so irrelevant when they are. That is definitely the microscope that Gomez has been under this season.
Since the Olympic break, however, Gomez has been one of it not the best player on the team and is acting as the offensive spark plug for the Habs' first line.
With one goal and two assists last night, Gomez is now in second place in Habs scoring with 50 points (12G, 38A) in 64 games. In addition, he has 15 points (5G, 10A) over his last 11 games and is the glue that makes that first line stick.
In case you were wondering, Gomez's linemates are ripping it up over that same span too. Brian Gionta (20G, 16A) has 10 points (6G, 4A) over the same 11 games while Pouliot (14G, 5A) has 19 points over the 25 games he has played with the Habs—all on Gomez's wing.
The trade of Guillaume Latendresse for Pouliot is starting to look like the turning point for the Habs season; he is clearly the missing ingredient from that line.
With the third and fourth lines scoring, all the Habs need is for the Plekanec line, and specifically Andrei Kostitsyn, to wake up, and they could become a dangerous foe.
3. The third and fourth lines are pulling their weight. With Darche scoring two goals last night and Metropolit getting a goal and an assist, the Habs offense looks balanced and this has been the case since the Olympic break.
Last night, playing in his 400th career game, Glen Metropolit scored his 15th goal of the season, a career high for him. His 15 goals are making up, in a big way, for the lack of production from Maxim Lapierre—who only has six goals this season.
4. No Paul Mara, no Lapierre , no Price, no problem. Last night was the third game in a newly founded winning streak for the Habs and the third game where Mara, Lapierre, and Price were out of the lineup.
Now, you can also add Michael Cammalleri and Marc-Andre Bergeron to that list, but I look at those two a little differently since they are integral to the Habs lineup.
For Mara, Price, and Lapierre, however, the coaching staff has been trying to find the right place for them all season long. Out of the three, Price is the one who is in a slightly different situation because the coach keeps throwing him the ball, hoping that he'll catch it.
For most of the season, Price has been about 50/50 in that department. Now, however, with 14 games left in the season, I would not be surprised if Coach Martin rides Halak as much as possible.
When it comes to Paul Mara, he has struggled all season long. Mara has been in the press box as a healthy scratch since the Olympic break and the Habs defense looks much more stable as a result.
You just have to look at Mara's atrocious minus-16 rating to see how he hurts the Habs five-on-five play. Here's hoping that, barring injury, Martin does not reinsert him in the lineup as the current defensive pairing are working.
You've got to think the Habs tried to move Mara at the deadline but were unsuccessful. Good thing he's on a one-year contract that is sure not to be renewed in the offseason.
Lapierre represents a different situation all together. Coming off of a career year, he has looked flat, tentative, and heartless all season long. Try as he may, Coach Martin has not been able to find the right linemates or ice time to turn Lapierre back into an effective player.
The four-game suspension that Lapierre received for his dirty hit on Scott Nichol last week is only showing how unimportant he has become to the Habs. If I were Lapierre, the sight of the third and fourth lines thriving without me would have me shaking in my boots.
5. Would someone, anyone, named Kostitsyn score a goal please? Despite the winning streak and the positive vibes surrounding the team, there is still the glaring hole that is the Plekanec line. While Pleky is doing his best, having AK46 firing blanks and Tom Pyatt as his other winger just isn't cutting it.
Andrei again looks lost out there and needs to get that scoring monkey off of his back. A lucky bounce, an empty net goal, or anything to get him going!
6. Ben Maxwell is not ready for the NHL. Maxwell looks like he needs to go through the Steven Stamkos school of hard knocks by hitting the gym to gain weight and muscle. He gets knocked off of the puck way too easy and looks completely ineffective on the ice.
Send him back to Hamilton and bring up Ryan White.
7. Not only are the Habs on a three-game winning streak, but they have won four out of five games since the Olympic break. With 14 games left in their season and the majority of them against opponents below them in the standings, the Habs could be poised to go on a bit of a run here.
In addition, the Habs should be receiving Michael Cammalleri and Bergeron back in the lineup sometime over the next two weeks. Is this a team that is about to start peaking going into the playoffs?
If you've never watched any playoff hockey before in your life, winning is about peaking at the right time. In addition, there is nothing more dangerous than a team who is peaking headed into the playoffs as many first seeds have been toppled by streaking eighth seeds over the years.
Now, a three-game winning streak does not mean that the Habs are going to blow over the competition but maybe, just maybe, the stars are aligning at the right time. We'll see what the final few weeks of the season bring.
Standings and Next Game
With 72 points in 68 games, the Habs are firmly ensconced in seventh overall in the East. Just ahead of the Canadiens in the standings are the Flyers with 74 points and three games in hand.
Behind the Habs there is the usual logjam with Boston (70 points, three games in hand), the Rangers (67 points, two games in hand), Atlanta (66 points, three games in hand), and Tampa (65 points, three games in hand).
While the games in hand make it difficult for the Habs to create much separation in the standings, all they can do is keep winning. A game in hand doesn't mean much if you lose it and the Habs winning streak just keeps putting pressure on their competition.
The Canadiens enjoy a day off today before taking on the Edmonton Oilers tomorrow night in Montreal.
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