Montreal Canadiens-San Jose Sharks: Carey Price Holds the Fort for 16th Win
Matinee hockey games at the Bell Centre tend to attract a lot of families and children, and with the San Jose Sharks in town today's game was no different. Unfortunately for those attendance, fan favorite P.K. Subban was a healthy scratch for the second game in a row. The other unfortunate reality is that the game was a bit of a sleeper for the first 30 minutes or so.
You have to imagine that the two PM start negatively affected the players because both teams struggled to play cohesively. The Canadiens' forward squad in particular had difficulty gaining the offensive zone and Carey Price had to keep them in the game early.
Turnovers were on the menu as the Canadiens kept coughing up the puck in the neutral zone and at the offensive blueline, totaling 16 giveaways for the game. Good thing the Sharks weren't very sharp either because they could have made things really ugly, really early.
Mathieu Darche put the Habs ahead by potting his own rebound off of the boards and his line, with Lars Eller and Benoit Pouliot, was the only one that had any shots on net—four—over the first 30 minutes.
The teams went into the second period tied at one until Tomas Plekanec's grabbed the puck out of the corner, muscled to the high slot and zinged one low glove side past Antti Niemi to make it 2-1.
Plekanec's goal combined with some line juggling by Jacques Martin—he moved Scott Gomez to a line with Maxim Lapierre and Tom Pyatt—was all the Habs would need to grab the momentum and run with it.
A third period goal by Michael Cammalleri off of a Roman Hamrlik breakaway and some stellar goaltending by Carey Price gave the Habs their second win in a row, and five out of a possible six points for the week.
Final score: Habs 3 - Sharks 1
Habs' scorers: Mathieu Darche (5), Tomas Plekanec (9), Michael Cammalleri (8)
Three stars: 1. Carey Price, 2. Mathieu Darche, 3. Tomas Plekanec
1. Thank goodness for Carey Price.
While the Canadiens couldn't get anything going in the San Jose zone for the first half of the game, the Sharks didn't have the same problem. With the play often taking place in the Habs' zone, Price had to be sharp and sharp he was.
Fighting through screens, contending with crease crashing players and moving well post-to-post, Price, as has often been the case, kept the Habs in this one early.
Now the Sharks didn't exactly play one for the ages either, but their size advantage allowed them to maintain a little more offensive zone presence. The Habs did a good job of keeping them to the outside, but when they made it to the slot or had a rare rebound, Price was there.
Keep in mind that the "big" trio of Joe Thornton, Danny Healthy and Patrick Marleau, who had eight of the 26 San Jose shots, were kept off of the scoreboard.
The crowning moment was when Price tried to score into the empty net, with Niemi pulled for the extra attacker. His shot was stopped by the San Jose player but you could see that he wanted that goal and that he is having fun out there.
The win is Price's league leading 16th of the season.
2. Lars Eller's trio is on fire.
Eller was minus-1 with one assist over his first 20 games of the season. Over his last six games, however, Eller has four points (2G, 2A) and is a plus-4. More importantly, he, Pouliot and Darche have developed some nice chemistry together.
Against the Sharks, this line was the Habs' most dangerous and, along with Price, was the only bright spot through 30 minutes of play. Eller in particular seems to be flying out there. He almost set up a goal in the first when he stripped the puck from Niemi behind the net and threw it out front. Unfortunately, no one was able to put it into the open net but the play shows what incredible vision Eller has.
This kid is just going to continue to get better.
In addition to the strong play from Eller, his linemates have also come to life. Darche has five points (2G, 3A) and plus-5 rating over his last six games and Pouliot has four points (1G, 3A) and a plus-4 rating over the same span.
Jacques Martin dropped Gomez down and brought up Jeff Halpern to play on the second line with Michael Cammalleri and Travis Moen. If Martin plans on keeping Gomez off of the second line for an extended period, you would have to think that it's a matter of time before Eller gets a shot as the second pivot.
3. Size does matter.
While neither team played a spectacular game, the Sharks had less difficulty keeping the puck in the Habs' zone through the first half of the game. One of the main reasons was because the Habs were simply not winning the physical battles one-on-one.
The Sharks, who were not in great form, are a bigger team and when both teams are playing with flat tires, the size advantage makes a difference.
Fortunately for the Habs, they started skating again after the Plekanec goal. To be successful you have to focus on your strengths, and speed is where it's at for the Habs. Every time they stop skating they get themselves in trouble and it's at those times that their lack of size up front becomes more evident.
With the news that Andrei Markov is going to have knee surgery and will be out of the season, the Canadiens will be getting almost $5 million of cap relief. If they hope to be a legitimate contender this year they will need to use that cap space to add size and skill to their roster.
4. Yannick Weber has really learned how to play defense.
I know, I know, Weber is all about offense, right? Not anymore.
Joel Bouchard correctly pointed out on RDS during the second intermission that Weber has become a solid defensive player.
When he had his first few tryouts with the team over the past few seasons, you could see that Weber had offensive flair and a blistering shot from the point. The reason he never stuck with the team, however, was because he was never very strong on the defensive side of the puck.
Now a few years later, having played under the tutelage of Guy Boucher and the two Randy's in Hamilton, Weber looks like a player who has come into his own and is capable of effectively playing the defense position in the NHL.
At 5'11, Weber is a defenseman who can't rely on size to get things done. As such, his game, like Josh Gorges', has to be all about positioning. Against the Sharks, and in his two games so far as a defenseman with the Canadiens, Weber looks like he has learned how to effectively position himself for maximum effectiveness.
I said it after last game and I'll say it again; Weber should stay with the Canadiens for the rest of the year. Once Subban is back in the lineup and if the Canadiens choose to keep Weber with the big club, the Habs will have a much stronger defensive group.
The only question is who will sit to make room for Subban?
5. Speaking of defense, Roman Hamrlik has really stepped up his play.
Averaging 21:10 of ice time per game, Hamrlik is a player that has to shoulder the largest load with Andrei Markov out of the lineup. So far, he is responding in exactly the way that the Canadiens need him to and that is offensively as well as defensively.
Hamrlik has always been solid on the defensive side of the puck but with five points and a plus-6 rating in the last six games, Hamrlik now has 13 points (2G, 11A) for the season and is clearly getting it done offensively too.
Against the Sharks, Hamrlik was offensive catalyst for the Habs while also shutting down the opposition's best players. His offensive instinct allowed him to pick up a turnover in the neutral zone and go in on a clear break. Cammalleri chipped in the rebound off of his shot for the insurance goal.
Hamrlik had 23:20 of ice time, had one assist and was a plus-1 for the night. More important than his timely pinches and his offensive prowess, however, is the fact that Hamr is the anchor on the Hamr-Spacek duo. As my colleague, Eric Engels, pointed out on Hockeybuzz.com recently, Hamrlik is the glue that makes that duo work.
With one more year on Spacek's contract, perhaps it is not such a bad idea to bring back Hamrlik for another season in order to insulate Spacek. If the Habs chose not to, next year with Spacek could end up being disastrous.
Standings and Next Game
The Canadiens now have a 17-8-2 record with 38 points in the standings. After a seven game stretch where the Habs played .500 hockey, it is a welcome change to see them string together back-to-back victories.
The Canadiens now have two days off before taking on the struggling Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night in Montreal.
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