One night after defeating the Washington Capitals in a shootout, the Montreal Canadiens were back in the friendly climes of the Bell Centre to take on the Florida Panthers.
Montreal arrived home with the snowstorm of the year descending on the northeastern part of North America and while the conditions were stormy outside, they were decidedly quiet in the building.
Well, quiet is probably not the right word, but more boring.
This sleeper of a game featured a clash between Jacques Martin and Peter DeBoer's defense first systems. As such, there wasn't a lot of room to skate and for long stretches the game put fans and players alike, to sleep.
The Panthers got on the board first when Scott Timmins put the puck past Habs goalie, Alex Auld, 7:30 into the game. Aside from that goal, there wasn't much going on in the first period as both teams completely shut down the neutral zone, slowing the pace to a crawl.
Jeff Halpern got Montreal back in the game 4:50 into the second period when he deflected a P.K. Subban slapper past Tomas Vokoun, knotting the game at one.
For a second night in a row, the Habs' top line of Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta and Max Pacioretty lead the offensive charge, as they potted two goals in the third to put the Habs ahead.
The Panthers pulled within one, with Vokoun on the bench and only 2:10 to play but Montreal held off their late charge for their second comeback win in two nights.
Final score: Habs 3 - Panthers 2
Habs' scorers: Jeff Halpern (8), Tomas Plekanec (17), Brian Gionta (19)
Panthers' scorers: Scott Timmins (1), Stephen Weiss (15)
Three stars: 1. Tomas Plekanec, 2. P.K. Subban, 3. Alex Auld
1. The Habs need a second line.
The first line of Plekanec, Gionta and Pacioretty looks like a keeper, at least until Michael Cammalleri comes back from injury. As great as it is that the first line is producing on a regular basis, it is very difficult to consistently win with only one scoring line.
The problem, as it has been since the beginning of the season, is Scott Gomez and his band of rotating wingers.
Last night, Gomez was again paired with Andrei Kostitsyn and Lars Eller and the trio was blanked off the score sheet. Not necessarily for a lack of effort, mind you, but they just don't seem to be three players that complement each other very well as both Gomez and Eller are playmakers.
With the trade deadline fast approaching, GM Pierre Gauthier absolutely has to find a scoring winger for the second line because Eller and Kostitsyn are clearly not the answers.
An interesting option would be to see Benoit Pouliot get a chance to play with Gomez but, for whatever reason, Coach Martin has so far been reticent to move him off of the third line.
The good news is that the Canadiens have been winning, despite being a one line team. But winning becomes more difficult come playoff time, when teams build game plans designed to shut down the oppositions top offensive threats.
As such, bolstering the Habs' offense has to be Gauthier's primary focus.
2. The third line continues to deliver the goods.
With David Desharnais centering Pouliot and Mathieu Darche, the Canadiens' third line continues to be one of their most consistent and effective trios.
The downside is that they don't score a lot of goals despite their strong play. That being said, they are extremely responsible defensively and usually spend most of their ice time in the offensive zone.
The Desharnais line did have a break down during the first period in which they were on the ice too long, leading to the Panthers first goal.
That aside, Desharnais had a few brilliant shifts last night, controlling the puck behind the net and setting up scoring chances in front. However his linemate, Pouliot, needs to start shooting the puck more.
After Andrei Kostitsyn, Pouliot has one of the best shots on the team. The problem is that he doesn't use it enough. More often than not when he shoots the puck it leads to scoring chances or a juicy rebound.
Pouliot has only 77 shots over the 49 games played, for an average for 1.57 shots per game. The amazing thing is that he has scored 10 goals on those 77 shots for a very respectable 13 percent shooting percentage.
Clearly he holds the key to more production from the third line.
3. Neutral zone trap versus neutral zone trap...fight!
This was a match between two defense first coaches who like to clog up the neutral zone and slow the pace of their opposition.
As a result, the game was pretty sleepy with gusts up to boring.
I guess that's not surprising considering that Panthers coach, Peter DeBoer, was hired by Jacques Martin when he was the General Manager of Florida a few years ago. And watching how he coaches, DeBoer is truly a coach in Martin's image and his "shut down the neutral zone" strategy surely puts a grin on the coach's face.
The Panthers did a good job of slowing down the speedy Canadiens, shutting down the middle of the ice, clogging up the neutral zone and otherwise mostly lulling the Habs to sleep.
When the Canadiens were able to get their offense going, it was almost always as a result of them getting the puck behind the Panthers' defenders and using their speed to cycle.
For a rare occasion, however, the Canadiens did an excellent job of going to the net on a regular basis. As such, they had several goal mouth scrambles and scoring opportunities from in close.
If the Habs can keep up that kind of play, they should find themselves on the score sheet more often.
4. The comeback kids
Last night was the second comeback win in a row for Montreal and in back-to-back games to boot.
Moreover, the victory marked the 10th time the Canadiens have won this season after allowing the first goal. For a team that couldn't buy a victory after going down by a goal over the first half of the season, this is quite the reversal for the Habs.
The timing of this apparent reversal in trend is great because, as a team, you need to be able to win all kinds of games to advance once the playoffs start.
And if going down by a goal means the game is over, well, you likely won't get very far.
Since their horrific month of December, the team seems to have really come together and is showing tremendous character despite being without the services of Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges and Michael Cammalleri.
As Pierre McGuire said yesterday on the Team 990, this team has a lot of testicular fortitude.
5. Max Pacioretty is slowly becoming a gamer.
Don't look now but the Montreal Canadiens might have themselves a power forward!
Max Pacioretty has been a useful player since he was recalled from Hamilton, but over the last few games he seems to really be finding his niche on the team.
Last night, Pacioretty was one of the best players on the ice for either team as he used his size, speed and skill to create scoring chances for his team. More importantly for the Canadiens, he is driving to the net on a consistent basis and always within a few feet of the crease, ready to pick up rebounds and cause havoc for opposing goalies.
On the Canadiens third goal, Pacioretty did all the work, driving to the net and cutting from left to right across Vokoun's crease for an excellent scoring chance. Vokoun stopped his shot but Gionta, also driving to the crease, was able to flip the rebound past Vokoun for what ended up being the winning goal.
If he continues his steady improvement at the same rate he is going right not, Pacioretty might end up having a big breakout in this year's playoffs.
For now, however, he is bringing exactly what the Canadiens have been missing from their lineup for a decade, if not longer.
Standings and Next Game
The win gives Montreal 63 points in the standings as they leapfrog the idle Rangers into sixth overall in the East. Montreal is 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and 9-2-3 over their last 14 games and, again, all of this without Markov, Gorges and Cammalleri.
The Habs are now two points back of the Bruins for third overall—they have one game in hand—and one back of the Capitals, losers of three straight, for fifth overall.
Montreal is slowly starting to give themselves some breathing room and are one point ahead of the Rangers with one game in hand, six ahead of Atlanta with one game in hand and seven ahead of Carolina who has two games in hand.
The Canadiens have two days off before back-to-back Super Bowl weekend matinees against the Rangers and Devils, on Saturday and Sunday respectively.
Needless to say, Saturday's game against the Rangers is a huge four-pointer with both teams jostling for position in the standings.