The well-rested Montreal Canadiens welcomed the New York Rangers to the Bell Centre last night for their second head-to-head match in a week. With three days off between games, fans were expecting a solid effort from the Canadiens and the home team did not disappoint.
From the start of the game, this was a fast-paced, high-octane match that went until the 6:06 mark of the game before having its first whistle!
Talk about pace!
The Rangers scored shortly after that first pause, when Brian Boyle jammed the puck past Carey Price with Yannick Weber and Jaroslav Spacek looking on. On the ensuing play, back in the Rangers zone, P.K. Subban took an undisciplined offensive zone slashing penalty. Despite killing off the penalty, the Canadiens handed the momentum over to the Rangers until the 12:10 mark of the first when Brandon Dubinsky took a foolish roughing penalty, pushing Subban to the ice after the whistle.
That opened the door for Roman Hamrlik to tie it at one on the power play when his shot deflected past Henrik Lundqvist. With that goal, Montreal seized the momentum and ran with it.
The problems continued for the Rangers—who didn't get another shot on net in the first after their goal—as they handed the Habs another power play less than two minutes later. The Canadiens made no mistake on that one either, as Subban found Tomas Plekanec open on the side of the net to make it 2-1.
The onslaught continued only moments later as Jeff Halpern dug the puck out of the corner into the slot for Andrei Kostitsyn, who had not scored since Dec. 23, to fire past the Rangers goal giving his team a two-goal lead.
That was all the offense the Canadiens would need on the night but they did not let up, firing 29 shots on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist over two periods and 41 for the night.
Were it not for his heroics, the Canadiens would have scored five or six goals before the third period even started.
But the tables turned in the third period as the Canadiens predictably sat back in a defensive shell in an effort to maintain their two-goal lead. Unfortunately for the nerves of Habs fans, the result was a barrage of 21 shots by the Rangers as they threw everything but the kitchen sink at Carey Price in the third.
The Rangers would manage one more goal, by Mats Zuccarello, but the Habs were ultimately able to hold on for the win, thanks to a 20-save third period performance by Price, in a game that ended up being much tighter than it needed to be.
Final score: Habs, 3-2
Habs scorers: Roman Hamrlik (four), Tomas Plekanec (14), Andrei Kostitsyn (11)
Rangers scorers: Brian Boyle (15), Mats Zuccarello (two)
- James Wizniewski
- Henrik Lundqvist
- Andrei Kostitsyn
Entertaining Moment of the Night
After scoring his first goal since Dec. 23, the look of pure jubilation and joy on the face of Andrei Kostitsyn was tremendous. As he yelled out in celebration you could see the relief of a player who just dislodged a huge weight from his shoulders.
Entertaining Moment of the Night II
After Max Pacioretty drove to the net and was pushed into the Rangers goalie by his own player, Lundqvist lost his mind and jumped the Habs player. On the ensuing melee, the Canadiens come out on the short end of the stick, handing the Rangers a power play, but it was funny seeing a visibly frustrated Lundqvist completely lose his composure, a la Ron Hextall circa 1989.
1. The Habs Need More Size and Toughness on the Back End
On their first goal, the Rangers had a shot that Price stopped but he was unable to properly cover up the rebound. This allowed Boyle to skate in and jam the puck past Price to make it 1-0 Rangers. Neither Weber nor Spacek tried to manhandle the Rangers player physically, meaning the he had an unmolested scoring chance from the door step.
The play illustrates a major problem with the Canadiens defense and that's they are not able to effectively clear players out from in front of the net; well, at least the duo of Weber and Spacek isn't.
You could see Weber trying to get the puck away from Boyle with his stick, but he was not in any way trying to attack the Rangers player physically. That goal could have been prevented if the Rangers player was mauled and taken down by the Habs D in front.
Granted that at 6'6" and 222 lbs., Boyle is not an easy target to move, but neither Weber nor Jaroslav Spacek even tried. Ideally, you'd like to see Pierre Gauthier go out and address the need via the trade route. In the meantime, perhaps playing his two softest defensemen—Weber and Spacek—together is not the best move Jacques Martin could make.
Why not put Weber with Hamrlik and Spacek with Wizniewski? This would balance things out a bit more.
2. Mathieu Darche Has Made Himself Indispensable
Playing 13:43 at even strength and 5:02 on the power play—the same amount of PP minutes as Michael Cammalleri—Darche has become a key player for the Montreal Canadiens.
Darche truly is the exemplification of how hard work and sheer determination can make up for a lack of skill.
Before the season started, most, myself included, felt that the Canadiens should have kept Dominic Moore over Darche if only because Moore is a faster, younger, more talented version of Darche.
But this season Darche has gone to work, from day one, showing that he belongs in the NHL on a regular basis and belongs in the Habs lineup.
With a depressing shortage of players willing to go to the front of the net, Darche is one of the only Habs willing to play that role on a nightly basis. As such, he has become one of the most important players on the first wave of the power play, as he simply parks himself in front of the goaltender and waits for tips and rebounds.
His handy work led to the Habs' first goal with Hamrlik's shot deflecting off of the Rangers player past Lundqvist, who was screened by Darche.
Word has it that both Darche and Josh Gorges have received word from GM Pierre Gauthier that they will get new contracts from the Canadiens before next season.
After seeing how Darche has played through 38 games, I have to agree with the GM.
3. Welcome Back, Andrei Kostitsyn
The shot heard around the city of Montreal last night was in the first period off of the stick of Andrei Kostitsyn.
With the Habs carrying the momentum off of the first period Tomas Plekanec PP goal, Jeff Halpern dug the puck out from behind the net, centering it in the high slot for AK46. Kostitsyn skated into it and fired an absolute bullet top shelf past Lundqvist to make it 3-1 Montreal.
The post-goal celebration was the most jovial, happy celebration I have ever seen from Kostitsyn as he dislodged the 200 lbs. monkey that was on his back. It was his first goal in 10 games and only his second over the last 20, but that is not the only reason why this goal was important.
Prior to the game, Andrei asked for a one-on-one meeting with Jacques Martin in which he did not complain but simply asked him what he has to do to get off of the fourth line and become a key player for the Habs. His goal aside, the fact that he asked for the meeting himself shows a level of commitment, maturity and willingness to change not yet seen for Kostitsyn since he joined the Canadiens.
After scoring his goal last night, Kostitsyn continued to apply his considerable talent in all three zones, skating hard, hitting, taking shots and displaying some nice moves to create offense.
Regardless of whether the Canadiens ultimately decide to trade Kostitsyn or not, if he can start putting up points on a regular basis, it will be good for the team and the player.
After that, we'll have to see where the chips fall.
4. The Canadiens PP Is Looking Good
I know, I know, they have had a decent PP for a while now but what I noticed yesterday was how dangerous the first wave has become. Keep in mind that James Wizniewski has only played eight games in a Habs uniform—he has nine points over that span—and the combo of him, Subban and Michael Cammalleri on the PP is starting to take shape.
With Subban and the Wiz at the point and Cammalleri along the boards near the top of the faceoff circle, the Canadiens have an excellent shooting gallery setup.
All three players can shoot the puck, giving the Habs a ton of potent shooting options from the back end. Add to that Mathieu Darche who is perpetually in front of the goaltender and the playmaking skills of Tomas Plekanec and you have an excellent first wave.
Moreover, as Subban's game settles more and more—since being paired with Hal Gill—he is finally starting to make some nice passes on the PP and shoot the puck with his head up. His best pass came on the Canadiens' second goal where Subban made the cross-box pass, a la Andrei Markov, to find Plekanec all alone with an open net to make it 2-1 Montreal.
Once Cammalleri finds his scoring touch again, their power play should once again climb into the top five of the league. And for a team that has trouble scoring, that's exactly what the Habs need in order to be a winner.
5. David Desharnais Makes the Canadiens a Better Team
Playing his fifth game with the Habs this season, Desharnais has a goal and an assist with an even plus/minus rating while averaging only 12:59 of ice time.
Last night Desharnais continued to show why he is the catalyst on the third line where he uses his excellent vision in the offensive zone and solid defensive play in the Canadiens end.
Desharnais, with his linemates Darche and Benoit Pouliot, continue to cause problems for the opposition every time they are on the ice. More importantly, since Desharnais was paired with Pouliot, the latter has played some of his best hockey of the season and suddenly looks more like the player who was ripping it up for the Canadiens last season.
At some point, you'd have to think that Andrei Kostitsyn would get his spot back on the first line alongside Plekanec and Cammalleri. At that point, the question will be what to do with Lars Eller who is currently keeping that seat warm.
Right now, Desharnais is a better, more NHL-ready player than Eller and as such should hold onto the third-line center role.
So where does that leave Eller?
I don't think it's in his best interest to be playing nine minutes a game on the fourth line, and would rather see him playing 20 per game in Hamilton.
Standings and Next Game
The win gives the Habs a much-needed two points against a team that they are in direct competition with for playoff positioning. The Canadiens record now stands at 25-17-3 with 53 points in the standings. More importantly, however, the Habs are now only two points back of the Rangers, with one game in hand, two points back of the Capitals and two back of the Bruins who have one game in hand.
Behind them in the standings are the suddenly ice-cold Thrashers with 51 points but having played two more games than the Canadiens. Just behind the Thrashers are the Hurricanes, 6-4 winners against Tampa, with 50 points and one game in hand.
Needless to say, this is a tight playoff race that will only get tighter over the remaining games of the season.
Next up for the Habs are the Calgary Flames, on Monday night in Montreal, before they fly to Buffalo to take on the Sabres on Tuesday. These are two games against non-playoff teams and as such, the Habs must pull out at least three out of the four points in order for this back-to-back to be considered a success.