After reeling off four straight wins including victories against Boston, Vancouver and Philadelphia, the Canadiens came crashing back down to Earth last night against the Nashville Predators.
With L'enfant terrible—Sergei Kostitsyn—and Frankie the Bull—Francis Boullion—back in town and the Preds coming off a humiliating 5-4 collapse against Toronto, you could almost have predicted the 3-0 outcome.
The game was one of the more gentlemanly matches you'll ever see, as these two teams simply don't play each other often enough to have any animosity against each other.
The game started quickly with the Canadiens controlling the play for the first five minutes of the game.
But it wasn't long before the Habs started to look uncomfortable on the ice, as the Preds employed a stifling defensive style that had Montreal struggling.
The story of the first period, and most of the game for that matter, was goaltending as Carey Price and Pekka Rinne traded spectacular saves to keep it a 0-0 game.
The Preds took a 16-9 shot advantage into the second period and opened the scoring when Marcel Goc was left all alone in front of Price to make it 1-0.
On the goal, Roman Hamrlik turned the puck over in the defensive zone and his defensive partner, Jaroslav Spacek, lost his man Marcel Goc, who was left all alone in front of Price to make it 1-0.
The Canadiens pushed back in the second, tying the shots up at 20 apiece, but were unable to pierce Rinne's armour.
For all the talk about Sergei Kostitsyn's return to Montreal, he was pretty much a no-show. In fact, the first time I noticed him was when he took a tripping penalty on Josh Gorges with less than two minutes to play in the first. He just looked like the same old floating Sergei that was traded from Montreal this past summer.
Neither team was able to score on the power play, including a 30 second 5-on-3 for the Habs, and the patient Preds finally blew things open in the third with two unanswered goals to seal the deal.
The third goal was a bit of a softie through a screen that stunned the crowd and zapped the energy from the Canadiens. Try as they might, they were simply unable to regain the momentum after that.
Final Score: Preds 3 - Habs 0
Habs' scorers: None
Preds' scorers: Marcel Goc (4,5), Cal O'Reilly (4)
Three stars: 1. Pekka Rinne, 2. Marcel Goc, 3. Francis Bouillon
1. Both goaltenders were excellent.
From the drop of the puck, this match was a good old-fashioned goaltending duel with both keepers making incredible saves to keep the game scoreless early.
It was almost like the goalies were trying to one up each other with several sequences of spectacular saves by Rinne followed by more of the same from Price.
Price did let in a rare softie in the third period and it was a goal that was both deflating to his team and the crowd. To be fair, while the shot was from one step inside the Habs blueline, it did go through Josh Gorges who was obstrucing Price's view.
Price had come out of his net to cut down the angle but the seeing-eye shot somehow found it way past his huge frame and into the top corner.
Despite that goal, Price looked like his usual calm, confident self and his counterpart, Rinne, was equally solid.
2. Andrei Kostitsyn continues to be the best player on the second line.
It's not easy for anyone to play with Scott Gomez right now. While he exhibits flashes of the strong play that we know he is capable of, more often than not Gomez just looks lost out there. Whatever Gomez is being plagued by it is affecting his linemates and AK46 is not immune.
Since he has joined Gomez's line, Andrei has had his ups and his downs but his work ethic and level of engagement have never wavered. As such, he continues to be the most effective player on that line and is the catalyst to most of their offensive chances.
You've got to feel for him though, because he would most certainly be getting a lot more points if he was still on Tomas Plekanec's line.
3. Eller's line was the Habs best line.
The fourth line of Lars Eller, Travis Moen and Tom Pyatt played their best game of the season. Moen, who also played an exceptional game against the Flyers, was skating, hitting, and driving to the net every chance he got. The result was that he opened up a lot of space for Pyatt's speed and Eller's skill to take over.
This threesome came close to scoring on several occasions and when your fourth line is engaged like that, it often helps transfer momentum to the top lines.
Martin liked what he saw so much that when he juggled his lines in the third he placed Benoit Pouliot on their wing in place of Pyatt. They didn't have many shifts together to get anything done, but that could become a nice fall back line for Martin in desperate times, going forward.
4. Jacques Martin might have found some interesting combos.
Neither Jeff Halpern nor Josh Gorges, both of whom were destroyed by borderline dirty hits from the Flyers' Darroll Powe, looked like they were 100 percent last night.
Halpern, in particular, didn't look himself and the coaching staff started reducing his ice time in the second period. As such, he only played 9:22 last night as opposed to his usual 13-14 minutes per game.
Then, as the Canadiens were trying to mount a comeback in the third, Martin shortened his bench and had Pouliot with Eller and Moen, and Gionta with Gomez and AK46.
Pouliot, as I mentioned above, looked good on Eller's wing and it would be interesting to see that line play together for a few games.
As for the Gionta and Gomez reunion, well, it is apparent why these two love to play together.
As soon as Gionta jumped on the ice his chemistry with Gomez was obvious and Gomez suddenly looked like a more effective player. Like the Eller line, the Gomez-Gionta experiment didn't have enough ice time together to judge whether they had rediscovered their lost chemistry.
That being said, and considering Gionta recent resurgence, I wouldn't be surprised to see Martin using him on Gomez's wing again come Saturday night.
5. The Markov-less defense looks alright.
For the second game in a row, P.K. Subban and Alexandre Picard were paired together and they looked pretty good out there. The wise old coach tended not to play them against the oppositions top offensive players and, as such, they were put into a situation where it was easier for them to succeed.
The duty of shutting down the best scorers went more often to Hamrlik and Spacek or Gorges and Gill.
Both of those duos are eminently capable of playing that role for the short term. But, as I said when Markov went down to injury, if Hamrlik, Spacek, and Gill play too many minutes too early in the season that could be a recipe for disaster down the stretch.
Their 35-plus-year-old bodies took a lot of abuse during a long playoff run and had only a short summer to recover. We have already seen how bad Spacek looked playing well over 20 minutes per game early this season, and I don't believe it is in the Canadiens' best interest to ride these three players too hard in Markov's absence.
I say this knowing full well that the Canadiens recalled Yannick Weber from Hamilton yesterday.
Weber, who was leading all AHL defenseman in goals and tied for fifth in points, did not get recalled so he could sit in the press box. As such, you'd expect him to be slotted in as the seventh defenseman on Saturday night against the Leafs.
If that is the route the Canadiens are going and if Weber can make good on his ice time, the Habs might have found a good solution to spread out the workload.
If Weber can't hack it, however, the Habs might have to start looking outside of their roster for a solution.
Standings and Next Game
The loss snaps the Canadiens four-game winning streak and drops their record to 12-6-1. Their 25 points in the standings give the Habs a two point cushion over the Bruins for first place in the Northeast Division.
The Canadiens have the day off before wrapping up their four-game home stand against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
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