On the same day that the Montreal Canadiens officially announced that star defenseman Andrei Markov's knee injury was serious and he would be out "long term", his teammates faced their biggest challenge of the season.
Last night was the return of the Canadiens' playoff nemeses: the Philadelphia Flyers.
The challenge for the Habs was considerable because the Flyers are considered by many to be the best team in the Eastern Conference with incredible depth, one of the best top-four defense in the East, and a goaltender named Bob who is playing lights out hockey.
Not to mention the Flyers are a physical team that likes to lean on their opponents and the Habs don't have the best track record, in recent years, playing against physical opponents.
None of that mattered last night, however, as the Canadiens played an aggressive brand of hockey and leveraged their smooth transition game to attack the Flyers with speed. The result was that the talented but slower Philly D had a tough time containing the likes of Michael Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn, and Brian Gionta.
When the Flyers tried to contain them, they often took penalties and the Canadiens made them pay by scoring two PP markers.
Despite playing the night before, the Flyers did not look tired at all and used their tremendous skill to barrage the Canadiens net, especially in the second period where they outshot the Habs 20-8—the Canadiens were outshot 41-28 on the night. But, the story of the game was once again Carey Price, as he turned aside all 41 shots to earn his third shutout of the season.
Scary moment of the night: Darroll Powe absolutely obliterated Josh Gorges with a crushing, blindside hit at around the six minute mark of the second. While it wasn't the dirtiest hit you've ever seen, it was clearly from the blindside and Gorges, who had just gotten rid of the puck, didn't have time to protect himself. Fortunately, Teflon-Josh got up pretty quickly and seemed no worse for wear.
Scary moment of the night part II: Powe was at iNt again when he checked Jeff Halpern and his shoulder made contact with Halpern's head, which in turn got crunched against the boards. Halpern fell backwards and to the ice with his bell rung. The hit wasn't very hard but it was to the head and it perhaps speaks more to the need of the Canadiens' organization to change from rigid to flexible glass than anything else.
Boneheaded moment of the night: Laviolette, true to his character and coaching style, put out the goons with less than two minutes to play to "send a message" to the Canadiens. There really is no reason, use, or place for this kind of thuggery in the league anymore. This is not the 70's where the game was focused so much more on fighting.
When a coach does something this blatant with the sole purpose of manhandling the opposition, trying to start fights, or otherwise intimidate the opposition in a losing cause, the league should have some kind of recourse like a fine against the offending coach.
Jody Shelley out on the power play with less than two minutes to play in a 3-0 game? Really? Shelley? Really?
Final score: Habs 3 - Flyers 0
Habs' scorers: Michael Cammalleri (5), Tomas Plekanec (7), Brian Gionta (5)
Flyers' scorers: None
Three stars: 1. Carey Price, 2. Tomas Plekanec, 3. Brian Gionta
1. More of the same from Carey Price.
It seems like Price is getting better and better and more and more confident with each game that passes. Last night, Price faced his biggest challenge of the season with the crease-crashing Flyers in town, but he still managed to make save after save while making everything look so effortless.
Price was in the zone and seemed to completely tune out the bodies in front of him and the ones that were crashing around him. He seems like he has reached a level of mental focus and maturity of character where he can remain unfazed by anything the opposition can throw at him.
This, of course, is a complete reversal from the Price of last season who would take each goal against to heart, each contact by the opposition as a reason to protest, and each deflected shot as a reason to give up.
The Flyers had a key 5-on-3 power play for 30 seconds with the Habs leading 1-0, in which Price saved the day. On that PP, Price made several difficult saves without letting out many rebounds, to frustrate the Flyers and maintain the Habs' lead. 38 seconds after the penalties were killed off, Plekanec put a softie past Sergei Bobrovsky, five-hole, to make it 2-0.
That's the kind of turnaround in momentum that the Habs were victim to time and time again last season. This season however, due to the solid play of Price, the Canadiens are more often than not on the right side of those momentum shifts.
In case you were wondering, Price is now 11-5-1 with a 2.05 GAA (sixth overall), a .930 save percentage (sixth overall), and three shutouts (second overall). His eleven wins put him in a first place tie with Michal Neuvirth and Sergei Bobrovsky.
2. Andrei Kostitsyn is playing well despite his linemates.
Talk about a transformation! Kostitsyn was pulled off of the Habs top line and asked to play on with a floundering center and a third line winger at a time when he was the leading scorer on the team. Not only did Kostitsyn put his head down and work, but he didn't even complain and he continues playing excellent hockey in both ends of the rink.
It takes a lot of character to be removed from the top line for the good of the team, and have that not affect your play. Especially when you consider that Kostitsyn is in a contract season and "needs" to produce points in order to earn his weight in gold.
His ask-no-questions attitude counts for a lot and shows the mental maturity that AK has gained since last season. He just gets it now and has truly become a team player.
3. The Plekanec line was buzzing all night in the Flyers' zone.
Plekanec, Gionta, and Cammalleri used their speed and mobility to expose the slower Flyers' defense, often leaving them flat-footed. The result was that the trio had a plethora of scoring chances in each period and made life difficult for the Flyers every time they were on the ice.
After a bit of a slow start to the season, both Cammalleri and Gionta have at least one point in each of the last five games. With three points in the game and 11 for the season, Gionta now has eight points in the last five games and Cammalleri has six points over that same stretch.
Leading pivot, Plekanec, is playing out of his mind right now and has 10 points in his last five game for 20 on the season. His 20 points put him in an 11th place tie in league scoring with Teemu Selanne, Chris Stewart, and Nicklas Backstrom.
Plekanec seems to be the cure-all for what ails offensive players and his influence has helped to jump-start Gionta. Scott Gomez, on the other hand, seems to have the opposite effect on players.
Too bad Plekanec can't play with three wingers because AK46 would also be ripping it up!
4. The special teams continue to be special.
The Habs' power play went 2-for-7 and their penalty kill quashed all six shorthanded situations last night. What more can you ask from your special teams?
The power play has now scored in four straight games, producing eight goals over that span including two last night, and is now operating at a 15.7 percent efficiency rate.
While the power play struggled early this season the Canadiens' penalty kill has been scorching. The Habs have allowed just three power play goals against in 42 shorthanded situations over the last nine games for a searing 92.85 percent efficiency. Their penalty killing unit is humming at a 89.7 percent efficiency rate, good enough for first overall in the league.
With the news that Markov is likely gone for the season, the Habs will need to continue to get massive contributions from their special teams if they want to remain a top-tier team this season.
5. The talented Mr. Subban.
Subban started off the game by reverting to his early season form where he was trying to do too much on the ice. You have to think that with Markov out, Subban knew the coaching staff was going to lean heavily on him, and that probably played on his mind.
Where Subban has become steady and effective by taking his time and simplifying his game, he seemed at times last night like he was trying to do too much. He settled his game down after the first period, however, and you have to think that the coaching staff spoke to him in an effort to tame their stallion.
After that, Subban went back to being his effective self and even demonstrated a yet unseen facet of his multi-faceted game; his aggravating character.
As Arpon Basu pointed out on Twitter during the game, Subban is quickly becoming one of the most hated players in the league with an outstanding ability to get under the opposition's skin. Not only is he an incredibly skilled player, but he is always yapping at the opposition and driving them crazy.
As a result, Subban was targeted by the Flyers for most of the latter half of the game. He even came close to dusting off with Flyers' captain Mike Richards but the linemen got in the way. That would have been one heck of a fight too, as Richards is tough as nails and Subban has the strength to keep up.
Needless to say, Subban is sure to get extra unwanted attention in the rematch on Monday. The good thing for him is that he seems to thrive under those conditions!
Standings and Next Game
The win improves the Canadiens record to 12-5-1 with 25 points in the standings. They are still first place in Northeast division—six points ahead of Boston who has three games in hand—and are third place overall in the Eastern conference.
The Canadiens have a day off before continuing their four-game homestand on Thursday against the Nashville Predators.
For now, the Habs are looking really good and the question that is on everyone's minds this morning is whether or not they are for real.
What do you think?