With the Vancouver Canucks at the Bell Centre to take on the Montreal Canadiens, Tuesday night, it was the story of two teams headed in different directions.
The Canucks, winners of six straight games, were being touted as a legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup this coming spring. The Habs have been going through a rough patch and have only been able to squeak out one win in their last four games.
The fact that Montreal native Roberto Luongo was in the net for the Canucks—this game was over before it even started.
At least on paper it was.
Fortunately for the Canadiens, hockey games are played on ice and not paper. The Habs took all of the reasons why they should have lost and turned them on their head.
The Canucks came out flying for the first five minutes, but the Habs were able to push back and take the lead on Andrei Markov's first goal of the season. After that, the Habs played a stultifying Jacques-Martin-style-defense-first system that kept the Canucks at bay and largely to the outside.
Although he wasn't excessively busy through two periods—the Habs outshot the Canucks 19-15 through two—Carey Price made numerous saves, when called upon, to maintain the Habs tenuous lead.
The Habs finally broke through on the power play in the third period, while being outshot 19-10, and Price made several spectacular saves in the dying minutes to preserve his shutout.
Final score: Habs 2, Canucks 0
Habs' scorers: Andrei Markov (1), Roman Hamrlik (1)
Canucks' scorers: None
Three stars: 1. Carey Price, 2. Andrei Markov, 3. Tomas Plekanec
1. Hey all you Price haters, how do you like him now?
It never ceases to amaze me there are no more broken legs from who people jump on and off the bandwagon.
When it comes to Carey Price, I spent a large part of this past summer arguing with people who said that Price was not a good goaltender and would never be. My felt and fell that Price, at 25, will be a better goaltender than Jaroslav Halak at 25.
Not to say that Halak is or will be a bad goaltender.
Far from it.
Rather this is just an affirmation of the pedigree that Price brings with him to Montreal. He has a track record of excellence and winning at every level he has ever played and should have the same success in Montreal if people give him a chance.
After last night's shutout win—the sixth of his career—Price is 10th among all goaltenders with a 2.28 GAA, tied for 14th with a .918 save percentage, and most importantly, is tied for second overall with eight wins in 14 starts. Only Michael Neuvirth of the Washington Capitals is ahead of Price with nine wins.
2. Andrei Markov scored a goal but is still not 100 percent.
Markov played his best game of the season last night. He looked like he had more jump, better anticipation and sharper timing. This improvement resulted in his first goal of the season, as the third man on the play to pot Brian Gionta's rebound.
Despite the considerable improvement over his previous four games, Markov still does not look completely comfortable out there.
That's to be expected, however, as it can take up to a year to regain the full range of mobility that he had prior to having knee surgery. Still, it was nice to see flashes of that player who is one of the best puck-moving defenseman in the league.
3. Brian Gionta looked good on the first line.
Gionta—who has been separated from his long time linemate Scott Gomez—was playing on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Michael Cammalleri. The trio looked pretty good as Plekanec had two speedy shooters to pass the puck to.
On the Markov goal, Plekanec drew the defenders to him and threw the puck to Gionta in front for a shot. Markov swooped in to put the rebound past Luongo. The play was created off of the speed and skill of Plekanec and Gionta.
It is going to take another few games before they get used to playing with each other, despite the obvious synergies. Once they do, however, I think that will become an excellent trio.
4. Scott Gomez has gone from bad to worse.
Gomez cannot seem to do anything right on the ice and is as ineffective offensively as he is defensively.
It's bad enough that he is taking up a roster spot right now, but the problem is compounded by him bringing down the Habs' entire second line.
Paired with Andrei Kostitsyn and Maxim Lapierre, Gomez continued to seemingly suck the life out of any player who had the misfortune of being lined up next to him.
Even worse, Andrei Kostitsyn, who had a strong start to the season, is wasting away while playing with the Habs most ineffective player right now.
This is not a minor problem either. Kostitsyn has game-breaking abilities but is not playing with players who can help or complement him.
Maxim Lapierre as a second-line winger? Please. That is only a hair better than having Travis Moen or Tom Pyatt on that line.
On the offensive side of the puck, Gomez's troubles were epitomized on a play early in the game where the Habs were applying pressure in the Canucks' zone. On the play, the puck came to Gomez along the boards, and he had plenty of time and space to either pass it to the point or into the corner for his waiting winger.
Instead, Gomez seemed to panic and he just threw the puck blindly into the high slot where there were three Canucks players waiting for it. The result was an unforced error and the play turning up ice to the Canadiens zone.
Discussing Gomez's current ineptitude on Twitter last night, I reiterated RDS's stat that he had gone 40 periods without scoring a goal. @sofiane_benzaza responded by saying that "Gionta is not far from that stats...2 goals in 40 periods...let's ease off Gomez for a bit no?"
He is not wrong in his assessment and, if you look at the Canadiens goal-scorers, things look pretty sparse throughout the lineup:
Michael Cammalleri—zero goals in his last seven games.
Brian Gionta—two goals in 15 games.
Scott Gomez—one goal in 15 games and only two assists.
Andrei Kostitsyn—zero points in his last six games.
Tomas Plekanec—zero goals in his last four games.
Is there any wonder why the team has struggled to win lately?
For Gomez, given that he is a playmaker and not a goal scorer, the glaring stat is his two assists in 15 games. Being a slow starter is one thing. Making mistake after mistake while also failing to contribute offensively is another problem entirely.
I think it is time for the coach to take some drastic action, and either demote Gomez to the third line or bench him.
5. The Habs' PK is outstanding but their PP is still abysmal.
On the bright side of things, the Habs penalty killers stopped all four Canucks power plays and continue to be a top-five unit. That's no small task either, as the Canucks had the No. 1-ranked power play going into the game last night.
The Canadiens finally scored a power-play goal as Roman Hamrlik got his first of the season with 18 seconds to go with the man-advantage.
On the uglier side of things, the Canadiens' power play was horrendous again last night despite the PP marker.
Their ineptitude with the man-advantage was never more evident than during a four minute PP in the second period where the Canucks had the best scoring chances, including a 3-on-1 break. During those four minutes, the Habs struggled to even gain the offensive zone and when they did they couldn't seem to connect on a pass.
At this point of the season this has become embarrassing, and the finger must be pointed at the coaching staff. This is not just about execution on the ice, although that aspect is clearly not working for the Habs.
This comes down to strategy and planning, and the coaching staff is not getting it done right now.
Standings and Next Game
The win gives the Canadiens a 9-5-1 record in the standings.
Their 19 points keep them in first place in the Northeast Division, two points ahead of the Senators and four ahead of the Bruins—who have played four less games than Montreal.
The Canadiens have the day off before taking on the Bruins in Boston on Thursday night.
In a week filled with challenges and matchups that should help reveal the true character of this team, the Habs got off to a good start with a solid win against the powerhouse Canucks.
Let's see if they can keep it going against the 7-3-1 Bruins.