The Montreal Canadiens had a lot of people worried about last night's game against the Carolina Hurricanes, despite their excellent play in recent weeks and regardless of their convincing wins over the Bruins and Canucks.
The Habs were five points ahead of them in the standings, and the Canes haven't looked that great so far this year. The reason fans were worried is because the Habs have made a habit, over recent years, of playing up or down to the level of their opponents.
Moreover, Carolina's Cam Ward has made a career out of squashing the Montreal Canadiens. But last night, the Canadiens, starting with Carey Price, had different plans as they blitzed the Canes for seven goals, chasing Ward from the net, in a 7-2 rout.
The game started off tight enough but the Habs got themselves into penalty trouble twice before the nine-minute mark of the first. It was during those power plays that Price made some of his best saves to maintain the 0-0 tie.
The Habs leveraged the momentum gained from the two penalty kills score two first period goals.
Things were not all rosy for the Habs, however, as they too six penalties on the night and allowed the Canes to tie things up in the second period. The Habs were able to regain the lead on Brian Gionta's fourth of the season and never looked back, scoring five unanswered goals to deliver he victory.
Save of the night: As if Price wasn't playing well enough, he made a heart stopping glove save on Tom Kostopoulos on a 2-on-1 with about 10 minutes left in the game. That save was a microcosm of Price's season so far and a punctuation of his All-Star caliber play. Cough, cough. I'm looking at you, All-Star Nomination Committee.
Scary moment of the night: Andrei Markov went down in a heap after his knee buckled due to a collision with Eric Staal late in the third period. The fall and subsequent writhing on the ground from Markov was eerily similar to the injury he sustained during the 2010 playoffs.
Markov punched the boards out of frustration, while he was on the ground, almost in recognition of the pain. That, to me, means that he likely tore the same knee ligament and reinjured the knee that he just spent four months rehabilitating. If I was a betting man I'd say that the Habs just lost Markov for the season.
RDS is reporting that Markov could be out three to four weeks.
Final Score: Habs 7 - Canes 2
Habs scorers: Tomas Plekanec (6), Michael Cammalleri (4), Brian Gionta (4), Maxim Lapierre (2), Benoit Pouliot (5), Andrei Kostitsyn (7), Mathieu Darche (3)
Canes scorers: Anton Babchuk (3), Tom Kostopoulos (1)
Three Stars: 1. Tomas Plekanec, 2. Carey Price, 3. Brian Gionta
1. Carey Price is the hottest goalie in the league.
Price was at it again last night, making those key saves at key times to keep his team in it when they needed him to.
The Canes grabbed the momentum off of two first period power plays but, as has become customary, Price made several brilliant saves during the PKs, to maintain a 0-0 tie. The momentum that the Habs gained during those penalty kills helped propel them to victory.
By giving his team a chance to win, game in and game out, Price has become that quintessential first-string goaltender.
Moreover, Price is now tied for 10th overall with a 2.18 GAA, 11th overall with a .923 save percentage, tied for second overall with two shutouts, and most importantly, is tied for first overall with 10 wins in 16 games played.
How he was left off of the All-Star balloting is beyond me.
2. The Canadiens' transition game has become its strength.
Many plays start on the blade of Price's stick and his first pass to his defenseman has gotten much better and there are fewer mixed signals as a result.
Even in the instances where Price does not start the play, the Canadiens defenseman are doing a great job of quickly getting the puck up the ice. The result is that their forwards are often gaining the offensive zone with speed. This allows the Habs to use their speed to back up the opposing defenders and create offense off of the rush.
That is the game the Habs need to play in order to continue being successful, as speed is their most potent weapon.
3. The Plekanec, Gionta, Cammalleri line seem to be jelling.
Last night's game was the fourth in a row where that all three players had at least one point. That sound like a pretty effective line to me!
After going eight games with only one assist, Gionta is suddenly scoring since being separated from Scott Gomez, with five points (3G, 2A) in his last four games. Is there any wonder what the problem was with that duo?
Gionta's new centerman, Plekanec, has surpassed Markov as the Habs best player and racked up four more points in last night's win. Plekanec is now tied for 12th overall in league scoring with 18 points in 16 games.
Michael Cammalleri has 12 points in 16 games, good for third among Habs' players. He also leads all Canadiens with a sparkling plus-12 rating.
If that trio can keep producing offense, they will be an excellent line for the Habs to anchor their offense on.
4. The Habs indiscipline was bad, but their PK was good.
The Canadiens took far too many penalties last night but with some excellent goaltender and solid defensive play, they were able to limit the damage. Out of six power plays, the Canes were only able to score one goal against Montreal.
The Canadiens were playing with fire by taking five penalties before the 10 min. mark of the second period. But the PK was amazing starting with Price, and the four-man unit in front of him did an excellent job of blocking shots and passing lanes, and clearing any rebounds. When a puck did get through, Price was there to make the save.
The Canadiens would be well advised to try and play a more disciplined game going forward, as giving the opposition six power plays will not generally yield positive results.
The Canadiens' power play—which produced three goals last night and has now scored at least one goal in each of the last three games—is now a middling 14.5 percent while their PK sits in third overall with an 89.4 percent efficiency.
5. The Canadiens defense was just starting to look balanced.
When Markov went down, you could see how upsetting it was to the usually stoic Jacques Martin. His defensive pairings have struggled early in the season and the last few games they finally started to look well balanced.
P.K. Subban and Hal Gill seemed to have figured out how to play together, Josh Gorges looked good on his shifts with Markov, and Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek were playing less minutes and were more effective as a result.
The timing of Markov's injury could not be worse with the Canadiens having just traded Ryan O'Byrne to Colorado. This opens the door for a return of Alexandre Picard to the lineup but the real problem is the potential strain that an extended absence by Markov could put on Hamrlik and Spacek.
Early in the season, we saw the two veterans playing far too many minutes in an effort to compensate for the absence of Markov. During those game, that twosome looked horrible on the ice.
If the Canadiens don't feel that they can adequately replace Markov's minutes from within their ranks, they will have no choice but to try and trade for a minute-munching defenseman.
And those are generally in short supply.
Standings and Next Game
In a week that was dubbed to be the first "real" test for the Canadiens, they came out with a 3-0 record and picked up six points in the process. The Habs' record now stands at 11-5-1 for 23 points in the standings and first place in the Northeast Division.
The Canadiens will now enjoy two days off before taking on the Flyers in Montreal on Tuesday. The Flyers are the next in a series of "real" tests for the Habs as the rough and tumble squad usually has the Canadiens' number.
The Flyers aside, all thoughts will be focused on Andrei Markov over the next few days, and fingers will be crossed around the city in hopes that his injury in not too serious.