In a preview of next month's Heritage Classic the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames faced off at the Bell Centre last night. These are two teams that don't play each other very often so, in a lot of ways the spectacle that they put on last night should be good fodder for next month's rematch.
Both teams were skating hard to start the game, clearly intent on grabbing the two points but the Canadiens got on the board first when Lars Eller fired a Cammalleri pass beyond Miikka Kiprusoff 4:27 into the game. From that point on, Montreal completely dominated play, showed excellent puck possession and skated hard, making things very difficult for a seemingly porous Flames defense.
The Habs would score three more goals, chasing Miikka Kiprusoff from the net, before the seven minute mark of the second period at which point the game looked all but over.
Unfortunately for Canadiens fans, the Flames had other plans.
As solid as back goaltender Alex Auld looked over the first period and a half, he completely fell apart through the back nine and the Flames took advantage of his shaky play scoring four unanswered goals to force overtime.
You can't fit Auld with goat horns, however, without giving the team in front of him a pair too as the reeling Canadiens were suddenly scrambling in their own end, missing assignments and unable to clear the front of the net. Turnovers by Hal Gill and bad plays by P.K. Subban helped the Flames make the score 4-3 and then 4-4 before Auld was pulled in favour of Carey Price.
Ultimately, it was left to Subban to redeem himself from a few bad plays by scoring the overtime winner off of a great pump fake pass from Scott Gomez.
Final score: Habs 5 - Flames 4 (OT)
Habs' scorers: Lars Eller (3), Mike Cammalleri (13), Andrei Kostitsyn (12), Jeff Halpern (7), P.K. Subban (4)
Flames' scorers: Rene Bourque (15), Jarome Iginla (19), Ales Kotalik (3), Alex Tanguay (11)
Three stars: 1. P.K. Subban, 2. Michael Cammalleri, 3. Andrei Kostitsyn
Trade winds blowing?
The press box was full of scouts for last night's tilt and four of them were from the Calgary Flames. Wait, the Flames had scouts scouting a Habs/Flames game? Hmmm. What's that they say about there being fire where there's smoke?
1. Lars Eller might be finding his niche.
Eller has been seen as more of a stop gap measure on the first line, keeping the seat warm for Andrei Kostitsyn, as it were. With the recent emergence of David Desharnais as a bonafide third line center for the Habs, most of the talk in recent weeks has been about whether they should send Eller down to the AHL or not.
Whereas Eller has shown some nice flashes of talent on the top line, most of the time he has looked a little uncomfortable playing the wing as opposed to his natural position at center.
Last night, however, all of that changed.
Eller showed some great chemistry with Michael Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec as the three players used their tremendous talent to baffle the Flames' D for most of the game.
Eller in particular was using his size and great hockey sense to be in the right place at the right time. This was never more evident than on the Canadiens' first goal where Eller picked up a puck that deflected off of Cammalleri, near the right faceoff circle for a tip-in past Kiprusoff.
If he can continue to click with that line and AK46 can get going on the third line, the Habs might have found a solution to balance out their scoring.
One game at a time though. Let's see what tomorrow brings.
2. The first line was dynamite.
The Habs top line with Plekanec and Cammalleri has had its ups and downs this season and more recently, deprived of their third wheel—Andrei Kostitsyn—they have struggled to put up many points.
Neither player has been burning it up with Plekanec notching six points (3G, 3A) over his last 10 games and Cammalleri with six points (1G, 5A) over the same span. The difference now is that they are starting to find some chemistry with Eller, and perhaps Cammalleri is getting some confidence back.
Last night, with Eller on their wing, the Habs' first line finally came back to life and looked like the constant offensive threat that they were at the beginning of the season.
The three players combined their speed, skill and size—well at least Eller's size—to regain the mantle of the Canadiens' most dangerous offensive line.
This trio was in on both first period goals and provided the early spark that the Canadiens needed to roll over the Flames for the first half of the game. If they can keep it up and Eller can continue to become more comfortable with his role on that line, the Canadiens should start producing a lot more goals 5-on-5.
3. Welcome back, Cammalleri.
Last game it was Andrei Kostitsyn's turn to wake up and, last night, Michael Cammalleri was the latest slumping player to come back to life.
Cammy's line was the offensive catalyst in the first period, with Cammalleri playing a key role on the first goal and sniping the second one himself.
The first goal was Eller's third of the season—his first in 17 games and his first point in 16 games—and the second was Cammalleri's 13th, his first in 11 games. Both goals were well needed but, more importantly, Cammalleri's goal was one of his signature seeing-eye shots into the top corner of the net.
As he came out of the penalty box, Jeff Halpern found him with a pass at the Flames blueline, clearing him for a break away. Cammalleri, confidence renewed, took two strides over the blueline and rifled a wrister top shelf past a stunned Miikka Kiprusoff.
That is the type of shot that we were seeing from Cammalleri all the time last season but which has been missing from his arsenal for long stretches this year. Maybe it's not so much that it has been missing, since he has been shooting the puck, but he has been trying too hard to pick corners instead of just using his instincts and has too often been missing the net high and wide.
Now one goal does not a turn around make, but last night's performance by Cammy was more about his body language than the points he accumulated. That being said, getting two points (1G, 1A) and a plus-1 rating ain't bad either.
4. Is Andrei finding some Kostitsyn-cy?
Two goals in back-to-back games after having a tête-à-tête with the coach? That seems like a pretty good sign to me!
With Benoit Pouliot on the sidelines due to the same flu-like symptoms that had already taken down Cammalleri and Max Pacioretty, it was hoped that Andrei Kostitsyn would continue to produce offensively for the Canadiens, and he did not disappoint.
Playing 13:20 minutes mostly with Jeff Halpern and Travis Moen, AK46 played with renewed vigor and oomph, all of which made him a very dangerous player.
Kostitsyn seemed to pick up where he left off from Saturday's game against the Rangers—where he scored his first goal in 10 games—by potting his second marker in as many games. After the goal, we saw an ear-to-ear grin on Kostitsyn that we haven't seen too often this season.
AK46 continued to play excellent hockey, driving to the net and using his blisteringly quick release to cause problems in the Flames zone all night.
Keep in mind that despite his "sub-par" play this season, Kostitsyn is still only one of four players who have 12 or more goals, and leads all Habs with a plus-nine rating.
If he just keeps working like he has over the last two games, regardless of whether he puts points up on the board or not, he will make the Canadiens into a better team.
5. P.K. Subban played his best game in a Habs' uniform.
Playing a team high 27:13 minutes with 2:39 on the power play and 6:17 short handed, Subban was the key player on the back end for Montreal last night.
He finished the night with one goal, one assist, a plus-one rating and three shots on goal.
While he made a few mistakes last night—like jumping on the ice too soon and causing a too many men on the ice penalty—overall Subban is really starting to round into form for the Habs. Mistakes are bound to happen as he is still learning his trade, but there is no question that Subban's game has taken a decidedly positive turn of late, and there are two key people behind the sudden resurgence of Subban: Hal Gill and James Wizniewski.
Since Josh Gorges went down to season ending knee surgery, Subban has been playing with veteran Hal Gill. Gill's calming influence on the youngster is apparent and Subban seems to have simplified his game as a result.
His new found calmness is positively effecting his game in that he takes his time to make plays, doesn't rush his shots as much, shoots the puck with his head up and, overall, is a much more effective player for the Canadiens.
You can often see Gill and Subban talking on the ice and the bench as the veteran shows the kid the ropes. This kind of mentor relationship is key to properly developing any talented prospect and I only wonder why it took the Habs so long to make this happen.
The other factor that has helped Subban is the arrival of James Wizniewski in Montreal. His minute-munching presence has made a huge difference to Subban's game because P.K. is no longer the only one capable of playing big minutes. This takes some pressure off of Subban's shoulder while ensuring that some of the old players are still fresh come the third period.
Ultimately, this means that the entire defensive corps is more effective and are better able to insulate Subban's play. So while Subban will continue to make mistakes, his play is overall headed in the right direction, and barring injuries, he should just continue getting better.
Standings and Next Game
The Habs were able to squeeze out a well needed two points with their win last night and now have 55 points in the standing with a 26-17-3 record.
More importantly, the Canadiens have now won five out of their last six games and sit in sixth overall in the East, tied for points with the Rangers but with two games in hand.
Things get interesting for the Habs, who are in Buffalo tonight to take on the Sabres, as they are now only two points behind the Bruins, Capitals and Lightning. The Bruins still hold a game in hand over the Canadiens but a win tonight by the Habs would definitely put the pressure on their Eastern conference competitors.