After a merciless seven-game road trip that saw the Montreal Canadiens win two out of seven, the Habs were back in the friendly climes of the Bell Centre yesterday afternoon to take on the Atlanta Thrashers.
Their longest road trip of the season behind them, the Habs hit the ice intent on stringing two victories together for the first time since the beginning of December.
Montreal used their speed to cause problems in the Thrashers end, blitzing goaltender Ondrej Pavelec for 16, 17 and 16 shots in the first, second and third periods respectively.
Pavelec was equal to the task, however, turning aside shot after shot, gobbling up rebounds and otherwise doing everything in his power to keep his team in the game.
The Thrashers got on the board first with Rich Peverley putting his ninth of the season past Price on a partial break with the play being setup by an ill-timed hit from P.K. Subban, who continues to have difficulty picking his spots.
Undaunted, the Canadiens took the play to the Thrashers using their speed to expose the offensively strong but defensively suspect Thrashers. Pavelec was up to the task, however, keeping the Habs at bay as his defensive squad bobbled the puck in front of him.
Despite the Canadiens outshooting the Thrashers 33-19 after two periods, it was Atlanta who took a 3-2 lead into the second intermission. Carey Price, who was fighting the puck all night, let in a few weak goals which meant that the Habs were constantly trying to tie things up rather than being able to look for the go-ahead goal.
The Canadiens power play, suddenly hopping like a cat on a hot tin roof, put two past Pavelec with newcomer James Wizniewski continuing to act as a catalyst. Brian Gionta tied it for the the Canadiens with five minutes left to play in the third, sending the game to overtime.
In the extra frame, Subban took an offensive zone hooking penalty and the Thrashers went to work on the PP with Dustin Byfuglien rifling his 16th of the season past Price for the win.
This was a game that the Habs likely deserved a better fate in as they out shot the Thrashers 50-28 on the night. Despite the loss, they played one of their best games in over two weeks and came back three times from one goal deficits.
That's got to count for something.
Final score: Thrashers 4 - Habs 3 (OT)
Habs' scorers: Tomas Plekanec (12), P.K. Subban (3), Brian Gionta (14)
Thrashers' scorers: Rich Peverley (9), Evander Kane (13), Andrew Ladd (13), Dustin Byfuglien (16)
Three stars: 1. Dustin Byfuglien, 2. Ondrej Pavelec, 3. Tomas Plekanec
1. Subban had another up and down game.
As much as I have not been a fan of benching Subban, let's face it, he does not seem to be learning from his mistakes. This doesn't mean that I think he should be benched again, just that he seems to be slow to change things up.
Atlanta took the lead six minutes into the game when Subban again went for a big but unnecessary hit. He connected with his target, Tobias Enstrom, who took the hit and made the pass to Peverley. With Subban out of position, Peverley had all the open ice in the world to skate in and put the puck five-hole past Price.
If there was better communication on the ice, Mathieu Darche would have gotten back in time to cover up for Subban's hit. But that didn't happen and the Thrashers player was able to skate, unmolested, to the net for the goal.
On the positive side of things, Subban scored his third goal of the season on the power play, when he fired a bullet past Pavelec with Max Pacioretty standing in front of the Thrashers goaltender. Whereas Subban seems to have made a habit of shooting the puck into defenders' shin pads or missing the net, this shot was perfect.
On net, one foot off the ice and with traffic in front of the goaltender.
P.K. also made a bunch of excellent defensive plays, none more important than stopping Nik Antropov from getting a clear breakaway with less than a minute to play in the second period.
If Subban can stick to playing like that and shooting on net rather than getting himself out of position, he will become a much more effective player for the Habs.
Unfortunately, Subban was at it again when he took a hooking penalty in overtime that led to the winning goal by Byfuglien.
Subban is young and rough around the edges. As such, it will take him some time to even out his game and these ups and downs are to be expected until he does.
2. I'd take David Desharnais over Lars Eller.
David Desharnais has been the hottest player in the AHL, winning the player of the week award for the last week of December. As such, the Canadiens decided to give him his shot with the big club in a make it or break it chance.
Desharnais took the third line center spot in favour of Lars Eller who was a healthy scratch. As I said last week, despite his best efforts, Lars Eller just hasn't been producing anything on the scoreboard. Desharnais, on the other hand, was the leading scorer in the AHL and seems supremely ready for prime time.
Centering Benoit Pouliot and Mathieu Darche, Desharnais brought that line back to life and they looked dangerous every time they were on the ice.
Checking in at 5'6" in height, Desharnais fearlessly went straight to the net every time he was in the offensive zone, which is a boon for the Canadiens who are in short supply of players willing to pay the price in front of the opposing goaltenders.
Desharnais, digging the puck out of the corners, fearlessly going to the front of the net and playing much bigger than his 5'6" frame, makes the Canadiens a better team. Now one game does not make a career but, right now, Desharnais looks much more NHL ready than Eller and I would not hesitate to send the latter down to Hamilton to get more seasoning.
Desharnais is solid with the puck and defensively responsible without it. This is exactly the type of player that Jacques Martin loves.
3. What a difference a defensive quarterback makes.
James Wizniewski isn't wasting any time making himself into a fan favorite in Montreal.
After getting two goals and an assists in the Habs' win over the Panthers on Friday, he continued to pad his point total yesterday against the Thrashers.
During a first period power play, with the Habs down by a goal, Wizniewski found a seam and whisked the puck up the ice hitting Plekanec in full stride at the offensive blueline. Plekanec used his considerable speed and skill to get past the two Thrashers' defenders and hold them off long enough to put the puck high over Pavelec, tying the game at one.
The goal illustrates the tremendous vision that Wizniewski possesses from the back end and harkens back to the days when Andrei Markov took a regular shift in a Habs' uniform.
The Wiz is able to make excellent passes into seams that are only open for a split second, just like Markov. In addition, his bullet of a shot, his toughness and grit mean that this is a player that brings a ton of assets to the table that the Habs have been sorely lacking.
Wizniewski now has five points (2G, 3A) in his three games played with the Canadiens. In addition, he has points on five of the last six goals scored by the Habs.
This is a player the Habs should re-sign before the off season.
4. Carey Price didn't do a lot to help his team out.
After being awarded the Molson Cup as the Canadiens' three star rankings leader for the month of December, Price went out and played a below average game.
Sure he made some nice saves but the first two goals he let in were weak at best.
On the first goal, Subban got himself out of position leaving a lot of open ice for Peverley to skate in on Price. That being said, Peverley's goal wasn't a brilliant move, he simply slipped the puck through Price's five-hole. It was a goal that would have been stopped if Price's stick had been firmly along the ice and it is a goal that he would surely like to have back.
If the first goal was weak, the second was horrendous.
With a scramble in front of Price and the play to his right, he was on his knees but did not have his skate hard against his right post. This allowed Evander Kane to sweep the puck into a minute space between Price's pad and the post, while lying on his back. It was a terrible goal that was setup by a bad turnover by Hal Gill, but Price has got to be better on plays like that.
As good as Price was in October and November and as much as the Canadiens would be out of playoff contention without his early season heroics, he continues to struggle since the beginning of December and is habitually letting in at least one weak goal per game.
With Price currently on pace to play 72 games this season the question of whether he is being played too much has to come into play. The alternative theory is that his numbers were simply unsustainable over the first two months of the season, and he is merely coming back down to Earth.
Whatever the reason, a .857 save percentage against the Thrashers is not going to get it done and the Canadiens need Price to be better over the back half of the season.
5. Without much fan fare, Scott Gomez is setting the world on fire.
After stinking it up for the first 20-plus games of the season and sitting out a few due to injury, Gomez has come back and is quietly making a significant offensive contribution for the Canadiens.
With his assist on Subban's tying goal yesterday, Gomez now has 12 points in his last 10 games (1G, 11A). In addition, Gomez has points in eight out of the last 10 games, getting shutout against the Caps and Islanders.
His 1.2 points per game pace is a far cry from the long point-less stretches he endured at the beginning of the season. His line, with Brian Gionta and Max Pacioretty, looks like a keeper and they seem to have great chemistry together.
Hopefully they can keep it up because as much as the Canadiens have been scoring on the power play lately, their 5-on-5 scoring has all but dried up.
Standings and Next Game
The overtime loss gives the Habs a much needed point in the standings and they now have 45 with a 21-16-3 record. The win gives the Thrashers a three-point buffer over the Canadiens but they have played two more games than Montreal.
The Habs sit tied in games played but two points behind the Rangers and one point behind the Bruins, who have three games in hand, for first overall in the Northeast Division.
Still behind the Habs in the standings are the Hurricanes who with 40 points in 37 games have five fewer points but three games in hand.
The Habs will now enjoy a well needed three days off before taking on the red hot Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday in Montreal. The Pens are a team that has been blazing up the NHL over the last 30 days so the Habs had better be ready.
Don't forget to check out Kamal's Post Game Video Hit.
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