There you go Habs fans, the "easy" game on this three-game road trip is out of the way! Wasn't that fun? Wasn't that easy?
No, it wasn't.
With the Montreal Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers facing off at Rexall Place last night, the Habs had a chance to kick off their Western road trip with a win against the worst team in the league.
Instead, Montreal allowed the enthusiastic Oilers to skate at will in their zone, getting several quality scoring chances from the high slot in the first period alone.
The Oilers got the party started when Ales Hemsky waltzed through the Canadiens' porous defensive coverage and wired a wrister top shelf past Price. After the goal, Edmonton completely dominated the rest of the period as the tired looking Habs struggled to keep up.
As has been the case far too often this season, Price was left to his own devices and had to make four or five huge saves to keep it a one goal game.
Montreal came back to life in the second, dominating play, outshooting the Oilers 17-8 and tying it up at one on Jeff Halpern's ninth of the season. Despite his horrible rebound control, Edmonton goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin made the difference in the second, and the Habs were simply unable to capitalize on their chances.
Unfortunately for the Habs, down to only five defensemen, the wheels completely fell off the cart in the third.
Price, who had been solid all game, let in two weak goals in a 15-second span, giving the Oilers a 3-1 lead. While P.K. Subban's ill-timed pinch and Andrei Kostitsyn's lackadaisical defensive coverage allowed the Oilers' players to score, both were shots that Price should have had.
Ales Hemsky sealed the deal with his second of the night into the empty net to sweep the season series against Montreal.
Final score: Oilers 4 - Habs 1
Habs' scorers: Jeff Halpern (9)
Oilers' scorers: Ales Hemsky (11, 12), Jordan Eberle (13), Ryan Jones (13)
Three stars: 1. Nikolai Khabibulin, 2. Ryan Jones, 3. Jordan Eberle
1. Give 'em a break!
With the injury bug raping and pillaging the Canadiens defensive ranks this season, GM Pierre Gauthier acquired Paul Mara from the Anaheim Ducks yesterday. It was a depth move needed to shore up the Habs blueline with Jaroslav Spacek joining the walking wounded this week.
While Mara was scheduled to play last night, his equipment didn't show up in time, meaning that he ended up being a healthy scratch.
If that wasn't enough, James Wizniewski blocked a shot with his face early in the game, fell to the ice in a pool of blood and was sent straight to the hospital.
This meant that the Habs, who already looked tired, were left with only five defensemen, three of whom were rookies.
To a man, the Canadiens defensemen did double duty clocking in with ridiculous amounts of ice time as follows:
P.K. Subban, 29:29, Roman Hamrlik, 27:36, Alexandre Picard, 23:23, Yannick Weber, 27:38, Brandon Nash, 8:30, James Wizniewski, 3:24.
Considering that the Wiz was gone after the first period and the Nash was nailed to the bench during the second, that left four Canadiens defenders to do the job of six. That is too much to ask of any defensive squad and you could see that players like Subban and Hamrlik were completely gassed by the third.
The defensive corps fatigue was a huge factor in this loss, as the defense and the team in front of it completely collapsed in the third period.
2. Andrei Kostitsyn came to play.
Well, at least in the first period he did.
He had a few plays in the first where he took the puck to the net with conviction, something he hasn't done in months.
AK actually had the Habs best scoring chance of the first when he took on two Oilers defenders, undressed them with a great fake, cut to the net, beat the goaltender but had the puck poke-checked away by Khabibulin.
As the Team 990's Conor McKenna pointed out on Twitter last night, that is Kostitsyn's career in a nutshell.
You've got to feel for the guy who surely knows that his time is very likely up with the Habs.
With Pierre Gauthier scouting the Sharks/Capitals game last night and assistant GM Larry Carriere scouting the Predators' last few games, you know the Habs are looking to make a move. And whatever they decide to do, you would have to think that Kostitsyn is almost a lock to be moved out of town within the next week or so.
This is a fact that he is undoubtedly aware of.
3. Benoit Pouliot looks like a different player.
RDS analyst Denis Gauthier hit the nail on the head when he said that Pouliot seems like he plays up or down to the level of his linemates.
Since being paired with David Desharnais and Ryan White, Pouliot has become a different player. Moreover, Desharnais—who made Dustin Boyd look like a 50-goal scorer in the AHL—continues to spur Pouliot to greater heights.
Desharnais' skill, vision and grit, paired with Ryan White's energy, determination and nose for the net are lifting Pouliot to another level. As such, he is perhaps starting to look more like the fourth overall draft pick that he is.
Playing big, hitting, shooting and always going to the net, Pouliot looks like he might be starting to live up to the projections.
Jacques Martin shuffled his lines a bit in the second, pairing Pouliot with Halpern and Lars Eller and it bore immediate fruit. Pouliot, who until recently hasn't been known to crash the crease, charged the blue paint on a Lars Eller goal-mouth shot, knocking the defenseman out of the way and leading to a scramble.
This allowed Halpern to get the rebound up and over a fallen Khabibulin, knotting the game at one.
We sometimes forget that Pouliot, who far too often plays small, is actually 6'3" and 195 lbs. Lately, he has actually been using his size and if he continues to do so he will be a very effective player for the Habs.
4. Lars Eller played his best game in a Habs uniform.
I'm not sure where it suddenly came from, but Lars Eller was a beast last night.
For most players, their play starts getting better and better, game and game, before they have some kind of breakout. With Eller, it was exactly the opposite as he has basically been invisible the last few weeks on a sputtering line with Gomez and Kostitsyn.
Last night, however, with Coach Martin mixing up the lines in the second period, Eller found himself on the wing with Halpern and Pouliot and the combination was dynamite.
On one of their first shifts together they scored the Habs first goal with Eller driving to the net, Pouliot knocking the defenseman out of the way and all three players jamming at the puck around Khabibulin.
The result was Halpern's ninth of the season and an assist for Eller, in a sequence where Pouliot was being double shifted.
If Eller can keep that kind of gusto up it will go a long way towards helping revive the dead Gomez line. Or, if Martin decides to mix up his lines, Eller's play will be a boon wherever he plays.
5. Scott Gomez finally showed up!
For the first time in months, Scott Gomez played like a bonafide second line center.
He was skating, making great passes, using his speed and shifty play to setup scoring chances and make things happen in the offensive zone.
It's no coincidence that in the same game that Gomez showed up, his linemate, Andrei Kostitsyn, also played his best game in months.
Gomez played so well that he was rewarded by Martin, by being reunited with his long time linemate Brian Gionta—Pouliot was the third man on that line. They only had a few shifts together but they looked really good. Perhaps the wise old coach will keep them together for a stretch.
The biggest problem for Gomez is that despite his strong play, he still somehow managed to finish the night as a minus-2. In case you’re counting, that gives him a team and career low minus-18 for the season.
This horrendous stat gives him the seventh worst plus/minus in the league, at minus-18, placing him 824th out of 838 players in the league.
For a guy who was raised in the New Jersey system and who is a career plus player, something has gone seriously off the rails for Mr. Gomez this season.
Standings and Next Game
After a three-game winning streak to start the month of February, the Habs have now gone 1-3-2 in their last six. The loss keeps them stalled in sixth overall in the East with the Rangers closing on them and the Bruins trying to pull away.
Ahead of the Habs are the Bruins with 71 points and one game in hand, and the Caps with 70 points and the same number of games played.
Behind the Canadiens are the usual suspects but their lead over them is starting to evaporate. In seventh are the Rangers with 66 points, Carolina in eighth with 62 and one game in hand, Buffalo in ninth with 60 points and three games in hand and the Thrashers with 60 points.
Things don't get any easier for Montreal who have two days off before the Heritage Classic in Calgary on Sunday. At 7-1-2 in their last ten games, the Flames are one of the hottest teams in the league.
The only good news is that it is looking like both Hal Gill and Michael Cammalleri should be in the lineup on Sunday.
And not a moment too soon!
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