Last night's match between the Montreal Canadiens and the Tampa Bay Lightning got started on an interesting note with former Habs property and Hamilton Bulldogs goaltender, Cederick Desjardins, being announced as the surprise starter for the Lightning.
This was to be his first NHL game and it was against his former organization.
The Habs started things off with a bang, clearly intent on reversing their recent fortunes, when Max Pacioretty drove to the net and fired the puck from the right side. The puck went in off of Brett Clark, only 58 seconds into the game, who was trying to cover Brian Gionta.
After the goal, the teams traded power plays and the Habs' new addition, James Wizniewski, showed fans why he is so good from the point, ringing a bullet off of the post.
Tampa's Desjardins looked shaky between the pipes but settled down over the latter half of the first period.
With the Canadiens holding a 1-0 lead and doing a good job of stifling Tampa, the team proceeded to take two "too many men on the ice" penalties, only 45 seconds apart, handing the Bolts a 5-on-3 advantage.
Tampa made no mistake with Martin St. Louis firing one short side past Carey Price, who was cheating away from his post. That goal gave Tampa all the momentum they would need as they potted another one before the frame was over, taking a one-goal lead into the intermission.
The final nail in the Habs' coffin, however, was when Steven Stamkos was awarded a penalty shot on a generous call by the ref. His spin-o-rama move fooled Price, giving Tampa a two-goal lead. After that goal, the Habs seemed to give up, essentially going through the motions for the rest of the third period, unable to produce any offense.
As has become the case far too often this season, the Canadiens were simply unable to bury their chances early in the game and it came back to bite them.
Final score: Tampa 4, Habs 1
Habs scorers: Max Pacioretty (two)
Tampa scorers: Martin St. Louis (16), Pavel Kubina (two), Steven Stamkos (30, 31)
1. Wizniewski Made an Instant Impact
On his first shift, Wizniewski had four shots from the point—despite the official stat sheet saying he only had one—as Lars Eller and Co. kept setting him up for his wicked one-timer.
On the Habs' first power play of the game, 3:35 into the first, Wizniewski fired a bullet off of the post. While he didn't score, that shot illustrates exactly why the Canadiens went fishing for this player.
While Yannick Weber and P.K. Subban also have hard shots they tend to miss the net more often that not. Wizniewski not only hits the net but his shots are always two feet or less off of the ground; ideal for deflections and big rebounds.
Wizniewski also lived up to the promise of being a minute-munching defenseman, playing 21:48 of ice time, second on the Habs only to Subban's 23:27.
One game does not make a season but suffice it to say that "the Wiz" will make a difference on the Canadiens back end.
2. Jacques Martin Found Some Nice Interesting Defensive Pairings
With Josh Gorges sidelined due to injury for a second game in a row and Alexandre Picard sitting as a healthy scratch, Coach Martin had to get creative with his defense.
For the first time since taking over the helm of the Montreal Canadiens, Martin had three righties and three lefties in his arsenal. But despite this apparent boon, Martin chose to keep the two lefties together—Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek—and the two righties together—Yannick Weber and James Wizniewski.
Of course he did.
Fortunately, things worked out pretty well for the stoic coach.
Weber and Wiz looked good together despite both being right-handed shooters. Moreover, they look like a pretty good combo on the first wave of the power play with both being able to fire the puck with authority from the point.
Personally, I'd still prefer to see them each paired with a lefty defender, but that's just me.
The other pairing that Martin used was Hal Gill and P.K. Subban and they also looked decent, with Gill's veteran presence seeming to calm Subban a touch. Also, given Gill's playing style and lack of speed, that is a combo that should allow Subban to focus on the offensive side of the game knowing that Gill can cover up for him. But Gill is a slow skater so there could be instances where he would be unable to cover up for Subban. This means that P.K. will have to be that much more vigilant.
Last night that wasn't the case but, depending on how long Gorges is out of the lineup, it could become a problem.
When Gorges is back in the lineup—he won't be playing against the Panthers today—you would have to think that Yannick Weber and Alexandre Picard would be the odd men out.
That is unless the coach is going to go from playing Subban a team-high 23:27 to placing him in the press box again.
3. The Habs System Is One-Dimensional
It is no secret that Jacques Martin is a coach who likes to employ the trap.
You know, that one-man forecheck that is meant to push the opposition to the outside only to come face-to-face with four Canadiens players in the neutral zone, forcing a turnover?
Well this system, so far this season, has only seemed to work when the Habs score the first goal of the game. Now, the Habs scored the first goal last night and still lost the game. That is because scoring first for the Habs doesn't guarantee victory, it just makes it possible.
When trailing after one period, the Habs have yet to win a game this season.
Well, if you watch Martin's strategy, he uses the one-man forecheck regardless of whether the Canadiens are winning, losing or if the game is tied. It's a passive system that relies on the counter-attack and taking advantage of mistakes, rather than pushing the play the way Tampa does.
The result is that the Canadiens continue to play defensively when trailing instead of opening things up in order to create more offense.
Last night was no different as the Canadiens, down by a goal to start the third, continued to play their passive style. The result is that the players who should be trying to score goals are too busy hoping for a turnover rather than trying to force one.
I have never hidden the fact that I am not a fan of Jacques Martin. I think that he is a coach who uses an antiquated system that worked better before the lockout, when there was still a red line. Now, however, it is becoming more and more obvious that it is a system that just does not work, at least not with the players he has.
I just hope that someone upstairs in Canadiens management sees the same thing I do.
4. What Purpose Does Maxim Lapierre Serve in the Canadiens Lineup?
While Lapierre had a bad season last year, he rediscovered his game during the playoffs where he became a key cog in the Canadiens lineup. Combative, in your face, aggravating, fast, hitting players and scoring timely goals, Lapierre looked like he would be part of the core of this team for years to come.
Last year, Lapierre had a rough regular season largely because he was recovering from an ankle problem for most of the year. This year, however, Lapierre is in perfect shape and he has yet to show up for work. Averaging 11:44 of ice time per game and with eight points (5G, 3A), Lapierre is simply not contributing anything on the ice.
Moreover, in the past 10 games, Lapierre has one goal and is a minus-six.
Not only is he not getting any points, but he rarely hits anyone, makes lazy defensive plays and, overall, just seems to be going through the motions. With players like Ryan White, Dustin Boyd and David Desharnais in Hamilton, I'd rather take a shot with one of them and move Lapierre out of town. I know, Boyd will never happen seeing as the team has already waived him twice, but I would still prefer to see him in the lineup than Lapierre.
Lapierre is an RFA at the end of the season and I for one would be happy to give him his walking papers. While he is not alone in his lethargy, this is a player who is doing nothing to earn another contract.
5. The Habs' Best Players Are Not Being Their Best Players
Tomas Plekanec, Michael Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Andrei Kostitsyn have a collective 10 goals and a minus-14 rating over the last 10 games. It is no coincidence then that the team has gone 2-8 over that same span.
Moreover, the Canadiens as a team have scored only have nine goals in the six games so far on this seven-game road trip. Worse yet, night in and night out too many players look like they are dogging it on the ice.
Benoit Pouliot, Michael Cammalleri and Maxim Lapierre among others, look disinterested most of the time, like they are just going through the motions and are simply unhappy.
Cammalleri in particular, seems to be one unhappy camper on the ice. In fact, he hasn't really been the same since Jacques Martin pulled him off of the Plekanec line at the beginning of the season and placed him with Gomez. He has three goals in the last 10 games, 12 on the season and is on pace to score 26.
That is simply not enough production out of the Habs' top sniper.
All of these problems point to a team that has or is starting to quit on their coach. Now, given how close Pierre Gauthier and Jacques Martin are, I think it is highly unlikely that there will be any coaching changes taking place any time soon. But with each game that goes by and each loss that piles up, the slippery slope that the Canadiens are on gets all that much more slippery.
Coaches don't tend to get fired lightly and given the track record between Gauthier and Martin, I would think the same would hold true in this case. That being said, if the Canadiens can't turn this losing streak into a winning streak pretty quickly, something's got to give.
Standings and Next Game
The loss moves the Habs record to 20-16-2, stalled with 42 points in the standings.
Ahead of them are the Atlanta Thrashers and New York Rangers each with 46 points. The Habs have two games in hand on the Thrashers and are even with the Rangers.
Just out of reach in their division are the Bruins with two games in hand on the Canadiens and 45 points in the standings.
In the Habs' rear view mirror are the suddenly hot Carolina Hurricanes who have two games in hand and 38 points in the standings.
The Canadiens have no time to cry about spilled milk, as they are taking on the Florida Panthers at 5pm today in Sunrise. Whatever the outcome is tonight, this road trip from hell will be over and so will 2010.
So have a happy and safe New Year and try to have fun, whether the Habs win or not!