With the All Star break behind us it was time for the NHL to resume play last night for the final stretch run of the 2011 season. So what better way to kick things off than a Montreal-Washington show down in Washington?
With both teams eager to get their motors running they took to the ice at the Verizon Center, intent on charging head first into the playoffs.
Well unfortunately for Habs fans, Montreal looked like they were still sipping margaritas on a beach in Cuba rather than focusing on that task at hand. As such, the Caps were able to swarm the sputtering Canadiens', putting tons of pressure on Habs goalies Carey Price in the process.
Mathieu Perreault got the party started for the Caps only 2:29 into the first frame, when his shot from top of the faceoff circle, 25 feet out, slipped through Price's five-hole.
That was a weak goal that Price would surely like to have back.
After that, however, Price came back to life, intent on redeeming himself. However despite his best efforts, the Caps extended their lead to two goals on the power play, with Mike Knuble standing by the open net for the tap in only 7:39 into the game.
At that point, it looked like this was going to be a long night for Habs' fans as the Canadiens simply looked out of synch. Aside from Price—who made several brilliant saves in the first and second periods to keep it a two goal game—the Canadiens didn't have much going for them over the first 20 or so minutes.
But that changed pretty quickly as the Caps, who were sitting in the driver's seat, got themselves into penalty trouble handing the Habs four straight power plays between the first and second periods.
While the Habs were unable to capitalize with the man-advantage, the PPs gave them the momentum they needed to turn the game around.
With the Canadiens pushing back, Brian Gionta rifled one low stick side past Semyon Varlamov, on a 2-on-1, to make it a one goal game 8:28 into the second frame. After that goal, the Caps completely deflated and the Habs used the momentum to tie the game on Gionta's second of the night, nine minutes later on a breakaway.
Montreal employed their system to full effect, stifling the high octane offense of the Caps and keeping them mostly to the outside. At the same time, they did a great job of getting the puck behind the Caps defenders and engaging their speed, resulting in several odd-man rushes and partial breaks.
Were it not for an outstanding goaltender performance by Varlamov the Canadiens could easily have steamrolled the Caps, as they fired 26 shots after two periods and 38 on the night.
The third period and overtime solved nothing and it was ultimately left to Gionta to seal the deal, in a shootout, scoring the lone goal for the winner.
Aside from the first period or so, the Habs played one of their best road games of the year. Moreover, coming back from a two-goal deficit produced a character win that should give them confidence going forward.
Final score: Habs 3 - Caps (SO)
Habs' scorers: Brian Gionta (17, 18)
Caps' scorers: Mathieu Perreault (6), Mike Knuble (12)
Three stars: 1. Brian Gionta, 2. Mathieu Perreault, 3. James Wizniewski
1. Where's the focus?
I hate to say that the Habs performance in the first period was predictable but, well, it was predictable.
With a week off between games and many of the players taking off on holiday down south, you figured that the Habs would either come out rested and ready to play or would be distracted and lacking focus.
Well unfortunately for Habs' fans, the Canadiens chose the latter strategy.
It wasn't so much that the Canadiens looked disorganized but more that they didn't look synchronized. Moreover, they were missing that "playoff drive" fire that they had before the break.
I guess that's to be expected after a week of relaxation, but with the veteran core on this team you hoped they would turn it around pretty quickly. Fortunately, that is exactly what they did and the result was one of their better road wins of the year.
2. The Caps started well but let the Habs back in the game.
Unlike the Canadiens, the Caps came ready to play and this despite having the same week off that Montreal had. Skating circles around the Canadiens in the early going of the game, taking advantage of their porous defense and plentiful turnovers, the Caps looked primed for a blow out victory.
In particular, Perreault was all over the ice and his line with Jason Chimera and Brooks Laich were usually too much for the Canadiens' defenders to handle.
Unfortunately for the Caps, their domination didn't last much past the first period as they got themselves into penalty trouble. The Habs took the first two penalties of the game but Washington repaid the favour by taking four straight penalties over the first and second periods.
While Montreal was unable to score on any of their PP chances they were able to grab the momentum and run with it.
Until the Caps started taking these lazy slashing and hooking penalties, they were in the driver's seat.
3. Price was again a difference maker.
Picking up where he left off before the All Star break, Price once again held his team in the game early. Despite facing only 29 shots to Varlamov's 38, Price had to make a myriad of difficult saves and, the first goal aside, he looked ready.
The fear among Habs fans was that Price would suffer a major collapse after the All Star game, similar to the one he suffered two seasons ago. And while one game cannot predict his play over the rest of the season, so far Price looks like he is ready for the stretch run.
After the Caps' first goal—a weak one through the five-hole—Price settled into a groove, bailing out his teammates several times from point blank, goal mouth chances. Price's strong play continued through the second and third periods when he wasn't tested that often, but when he was it was usually a quality scoring chance.
So, just like he did most nights over the first 50 games of the season, Price held the fort long enough for his team to get their offense going, ensuring a well deserved win.
Last night's victory was a career high 25th of the season for Price, and he is now tied with Jonas Hiller and Tim Thomas for first in the league in that department.
4. Power outage.
What happened to the PP that was doing so well since the arrival of James Wizniewski?
Last night, the Habs went 0-for-6 with the extra man, unable to take advantage of several lazy penalties by the Caps. Worse still is that over their last three games, the Canadiens have had 20 power play opportunities and have scored a grand total of two goals—a pitiful 10 percent efficiency.
That's just not good enough.
For a team that struggles to score 5-on-5 they need their power play to be better going forward. There is no question that missing Michael Cammalleri from their lineup doesn't help but execution has a lot to do with their problem.
Last night while the Canadiens passed the puck around a lot on the PP, they didn't do a good job of going to the net or shooting with a screen in front. As such, most of their shots were on first chances with Caps did a great job of boxing the Habs out down low.
Being a fast, skilled-based team means that the Canadiens will tend to draw a lot of penalties if they engage their speed, as they did last night. But they have to start taking advantages of their chances.
One power play goal last night would have delivered the win for Montreal and prevented the Caps from getting a point for the shootout loss. Maybe the power play will get better after a few practices, especially with word that Cammalleri could be back in the lineup as early as this weekend.
Both a reinvigorated power play and the return of Cammalleri would be welcome for the Habs.
5. The Captain came to play.
With the Canadiens trailing by two goals to start the second period, Canadiens' captain Brian Gionta decided that he had had enough.
Jumping on a pass from Andrei Kostitsyn, Gionta fired a bullet low stick side past Semyon Varlamov to cut the Caps' lead in half.
The timing of that goal was ironic because I was embroiled in discussions on Twitter about the Habs captain. A few people felt that Gionta has been the most disappointing Hab so far this season, where as I was arguing that Scott Gomez surely takes the cake in that department.
Immediately after that conversation, Captain G put the Habs on the board eliciting a lot of laughs online. The irony continued with Gionta scoring his second of the night, taking a breakaway pass from Plekanec and firing it past Varlamov.
The two goals were Gionta's 17th and 18th of the season and put him on pace for 29 this year. Now 29 goals is not exactly a high water mark for Gionta but, in a season where the Habs struggle to score on a consistent basis, it's not all bad.
Gionta had only two goals over his previous nine games, all on a line with Scott Gomez as his center. Last night, however, paired with miracle maker Tomas Plekanec, the captain suddenly found his scoring touch again.
With 31 games left in the season, Montreal has to figure out a solution for the second line ASAP.
Moving Gomez to the third line is where I would start.
Standings and Next Game
The win gives the Canadiens 61 points in 51 games for sole possession on seventh in the East. The victory also moves their road record to the .500 mark and puts them within three points of the Capitals for fifth in the East.
Ahead of Montreal are the Rangers and Capitals with 62 and 64 points respectively, and the Habs holding two games in hand on New York and one on Washington.
In the rear-view mirror are the Thrashers with 57 points in 53 games and the Canes with 56 points in 51.
Montreal has a golden opportunity to keep climbing in the standings tonight against the Panthers at the Bell Centre. A win by the Habs tonight would put another nail in Florida's playoff coffin while allowing Montreal to leapfrog the Rangers in the standings.
Game time is 7:30 pm with the puck dropping about ten minutes later.