It's amazing how quickly things can turn around in the world of NHL hockey.
After going 2-8 to end the month of December, the Habs were a team on the slide that looked destined to slip right out of the playoff race.
Now, some 10 odd days later, the Canadiens are suddenly winners of three out of their last four games. They did so by stealing victory from the clutches of the Boston Bruins in the dying minutes of yesterday's pivotal matchup between division rivals.
The teams lived up to their reputations as defensive stalwarts, shutting down the middle of the ice and limiting each other to shots from the outside in the early going.
Both teams play a similar style that relies on counter-attacking off their opponents' mistakes, and each time there was even a minor error by either side, there was a scoring chance the other way. While both teams played a tight defensive game in the first, the Canadiens started making sloppy plays and turnovers in the second.
This allowed the Bruins to open the scoring on a sweet tic-tac-toe play between Brad Marchard, Blake Wheeler and Patrice Bergeron. The play was setup by Bergeron as he crushed Habs' defenseman Alexandre Picard along the boards, stripping him of the puck and passing it off to Marchand.
Bergeron extended the B's lead when he out-muscled Scott Gomez in the crease and potted the rebound off a Zdeno Chara shot to make it 2-0.
At that point, the game looked out of reach for the home team, as the Habs' lack of confidence seemed to engulf them. However, down 2-0 and missing their top sniper— Michael Cammalleri left the game in the second period with flu-like symptoms and did not return—the Canadiens put in one of their most tenacious efforts, outshooting the Bruins 18-8 in the third.
The comeback started when a Mathieu Darche goal was disallowed, followed by a Gomez goal that went off two Bruins' skates on the power play. Then, with Carey Price on the bench for the extra attacker, a James Wizniewski shot went off of Brian Gionta's skate, past Tim Thomas, tying the game with 48 second left in third and sending the match to overtime.
That left it to Max Pacioretty to put the winner past Thomas, on a seeing-eye shot, top shelf, capping the comeback and giving the Habs two much-needed points in the standings and a much-needed shot in the arm.
This is the kind of victory that puts hair on your chest, and it should provide a nice boost of confidence to the Habs.
Final Score: Habs 3-Boston 2 (OT)
Habs' scorers: Scott Gomez (6), Brian Gionta (15), Max Pacioretty (3)
Bruins' scorers: Patrice Bergeron (9, 10)
Three stars: 1. Max Pacioretty, 2. Tim Thomas, 3. Patrice Bergeron
1. Benoit Pouliot looks like a man renewed.
It's amazing what a difference a good center can make to a winger's play on the ice. It's also amazing what a couple of goals can do for a goal-scorers confidence.
Since playing with David Desharnais as his center, Benoit Pouliot looks every bit the player that scored 15 goals in 39 games with Montreal last season.
After scoring a regulation goal and the game-winning shootout goal on a sweet stick drag, Pouliot is once again playing with confidence. It is no coincidence that his revival came at the same time as he was placed with the hottest player in the AHL this season—Desharnais.
Desharnais' speed and grittiness allowed Pouliot to get open in prime scoring position for excellent one-timer shots. Combined with Mathieu Darche's never-quit attitude and nose for the net, these three formed an excellent trio.
The renewed production from Pouliot allowed Coach Martin to switch up his lines in the third period, reuniting Hamilton's dynamic duo of Desharnais and Pacioretty (with Gionta) and moving Gomez to center with Darche and Pouliot.
The result was instant chemistry as Pouliot, Gomez and Darche created a myriad of scoring chances.
It will be interesting to see if Martin keeps the trio together.
2. Carey Price is back.
Since losing 4-1 against Tampa Bay on December 30th, Carey Price seems to have rediscovered the focus and calm, quiet confidence that he displayed over the first two months of the season.
Whereas he looked nervous and tentative through the month of December, Price looks like he has fixed whatever was ailing him and with all of the injuries starting to pile up, it's not a moment too soon!
Last night, Price was always square to the shooter, let out very few rebounds and didn't have to move a lot in his net to stop the puck. That is always a sign of his soundness, positionally.
Moreover, Price just seemed to exude the same kind of confidence that he showed at the beginning of the season but which has been MIA through the month of December.
Let's face it, unless GM Gauthier makes some drastic changes to the lineup, the Habs are not going to be an offensive juggernaut any time soon. That being said, in order for the Canadiens to win, they will need Price to be at his best as he was last night.
3. P.K. Subban continues to play excellent hockey.
Since being paired with Hal Gill—when Josh Gorges went down with injury a few weeks ago—Subban has been a much more effective player.
He's not running around as much anymore, looks calmer on the ice and takes his time with plays. He is essentially starting to look more and more like the all-around defenseman that he should be rather than the wild stallion we have seen far too often this season.
Subban still occasionally ties to go for a low percentage hit or sliding defensive play, but overall, he is playing a much more responsible, in-control game and much of the credit for that has to go to Hal Gill.
Since the beginning of the season, I have been saying that Subban needed to be paired with a veteran player, like Roman Hamrlik, in order to learn the ropes of the league, but for some reason it has taken Coach Martin a full 40 games to figure that out.
You often see Gill and Subban talking on the ice and on the bench and that communication is translating into a pretty good defensive duo on the ice.
With Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges both gone for the season, Subban is the only player in the Habs' defensive ranks who has the ability to truly pick up the slack. These few games that he's played with Hal Gill are showing us what he can really do on the defensive side of the puck.
Now if only he had some offensive support for his end-to-end rushes, he could be contributing in both ends of the rink!
4. Travis Moen played his best game of the year.
Last night, and for perhaps the first time this season, Moen looked like the player that helped the Ducks win the cup a few years ago, leading by example. Starting with his fight with Adam McQuaid in the first period, Moen played a gritty, in-your-face style that made him such great free agent acquisition in 2009.
So far this season, Moen has been invisible on too many nights and I even gave him a C rating in my Habs' mid-season review.
Last night, his line with Tom Pyatt and Jeff Halpern seemed to be carrying over the momentum from the match against Pittsburgh, in which they were one of the main offensive thrusts for the Habs.
With the third line of Desharnais, Pouliot and Darche seeming to click, the Canadiens just need their top two lines to get going, and maybe they can start winning a few games.
However, if Martin decides to keep Desharnais on the second line and Gomez on the third, he might have found the solution to balance out the attack.
Whatever happens, Moen is finally doing his part.
5. Down goes Cammalleri.
Michael Cammalleri went to the dressing room about five minutes into the second period and did not return for the rest of the night. Prior to him leaving the match, his line with Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn had some decent scoring chances.
The problem, however, is that most of their shots were from the outside.
This is a problem that extends beyond the first line, as the Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Max Pacioretty line were also having problems going to the net.
What is it with this Canadiens squad that they can't get their top two lines rolling at the same time? Moreover, what is it about the Canadiens that they have no one who is willing to go to the front of the net? Last night, shot after shot were taken from the outside, with no one in front of the net to either screen the goalie or pick up a rebound.
This is the NHL, and you are just not going to score much with shots from the outside.
When the Habs finally showed up in the third period last night and were causing problems for the Bruins, Tim Thomas was letting out a lot of rebounds. But, once again, the Canadiens rarely had anyone in front of the net to put the puck past the Bruins' goaltender.
On the tying goal, with 48 seconds to play in the period, Gionta was driving to the net and the puck deflected off of his skate and in. If the Canadiens had more players willing to play that role, they would likely score a lot more garbage goals.
Mathieu Darche, Brian Gionta and even David Desharnais seem to be the only ones willing to do it on a consistent basis. If that Canadiens want to improve on their meager 2.5 goals for per game a good place to start would be the front of the net.
Standings and Next Game
The exciting comeback win give the Canadiens 49 points in the standings with a 23-16-3 record. Since the game went into overtime, the Bruins pulled one point of the contest, too, helping them maintain their first place position in the Northeast division by virtue of their two games in hand on the Habs.
Montreal now has two days off before taking on the New York Rangers, winners of three straight games, in New York on Tuesday.
That game will be another "four-pointer," with the Rangers having played one more game than the Habs and holding four more points than Montreal. If the Habs can win on Tuesday, they will close the gap on the Rangers to two points, and they'll still have one game in hand.
The Habs have squeaked out three tight victories and one overtime loss in their last four games. Sometimes in order to get out of a slump, you have to win a few tight contests in order to get your confidence back.
We'll find out, starting Tuesday night, where the Canadiens' heads are at.
For all of you that will be in the Montreal area on Tuesday, I am going to watch the game with a bunch of people at Mclean's pub, in downtown. It is an open invitation so feel free to join us!