With the memory of a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of the Calgary Flames still fresh in their minds, the Montreal Canadiens took to the ice against the Vancouver Canucks last night in what seemed like a mismatch of epic proportions.
Prior to the game, the Canucks were first place in the league, had the best goals-for, the best goals-against, the No. 1 power play and the fourth overall penalty kill.
Add to that the fact that Montreal hadn't won in Vancouver since Nov. 2000 and that it was on a three-game losing streak, and the outlook was bleak.
Despite the long odds against them and true to their form of showing up when you least expect them to, the Canadiens came out and played one of their best road games of the season.
Vancouver tends to win games with skill instead of brawn and, as such, Montreal actually stacks up pretty well against them.
With a fast-paced, skilled-based game being employed by both teams, the match was extremely entertaining and a real glimpse of what true skilled hockey looks like. With very few stops in play and end-to-end action, the fans certainly got their money's worth!
Montreal got on the board first, when Benoit Pouliot sprung David Desharnais with a breakaway pass that he tucked five-hole on Roberto Luongo. Only 1:07 later, Brian Gionta potted the rebound off a P.K. Subban slapper for his 22nd of the season to make it 2-0.
The shots were 14-1 Montreal by the 10-minute mark of the first before Vancouver was able to mount any push back. After that, the tables were turned, with the Canucks firing 11 shots to Montreal's two over the final 10 minutes of the first and out-shooting the Habs 39-25 on the night.
Montreal got itself into penalty trouble, handing the Canucks power play six man-advantages overall, including four in the third period, but was able to stop all but two.
Henrik Sedin got the 'Nucks on the board 3:27 into the second, before Andrei Kostitsyn fired his 14th of the season—the eventual game-winner—past Luongo at 10:36 of the same period.
The Canucks made it a one-goal game early in the third, but Carey Price, who stopped 37 shots on the night, stood tall, turning aside shot after shot to secure the victory.
Final score: Habs 3, Canucks 2
Habs Scorers: David Desharnais (6), Brian Gionta (22), Andrei Kostitsyn (14)
Canucks Scorers: Henrik Sedin (15), Mikael Samuelsson (17)
Three Stars: Carey Price, Ryan Kesler, Brian Gionta
With time running out and the Habs clinging to a one-goal lead, lead-footed Hal Gill got into a foot race for an icing call. Gill dove and used his long reach to touch the puck first, sending the faceoff back to the Canucks zone with about 30 seconds to play.
Gill's diving play prevented the Canucks from pulling Roberto Luongo for the extra attacker and helped ensure the Montreal win.
1. Will the Real Montreal Canadiens Please Stand Up?
The Canadiens, clearly intent on reversing their recent fortunes, employed their most intense net-presence game of the season last night. They unfortunately didn't maintain this style for the entire game, but in the first period, Montreal looked more like the crease-crashing Flyers than the habitually perimeter-playing Canadiens.
From Andrei Kostitsyn to Travis Moen to Brian Gionta and Max Pacioretty, it seemed like every line had players who were crashing the crease. The result was a flurry of goalmouth scrambles and scoring chances by Montreal, with players falling all over Luongo.
As much as a physical presence has been lacking around the opposition's net for most of the season, the Canadiens showed last night that they actually do have players who can play that role.
Why they don't do so more often is a bit of a mystery to me, but they should take note from last night's game and try to consistently reproduce that style of play.
2. Four Players, Four Huge Games
While Carey Price was the uncontested hero of the night, the entire team put in a solid effort, helping the Habs snap their three-game losing streak.
With a 2-0 lead in the game, Coach Martin decided to shorten his bench by essentially sitting the Desharnais line for the balance of the game. I'm not sure what the exact motivation was for this move but, with the other three lines firing on all cylinders, perhaps Martin wanted to go with the lines he felt could guarantee him the win.
The entire team played well, but a few players in particular stood out: Hal Gill, P.K. Subban, Roman Hamrlik and Tomas Plekanec.
All four players finished the night with more than 20 minutes of ice time, with Subban and Gill doing yeoman's work, clocking in at 26:17 and 25:53 respectively.
Gill, Subban and Hamrlik led the charge in boxing the Canucks out of the high slot, clearing the front of the net and getting rid of rebounds.
Subban in particular has truly grown into the role of the No. 1 defenseman on this team. While he still has a lot to learn and will undoubtedly continue to get better each year, at 21 years of age, you have to be impressed with his incredible poise on the ice.
As for Plekanec, while a lot has been made lately about his lack of offensive production on the road, he continues to take care of things on the defensive side of the puck.
Plekanec was one of the main reasons why the Canucks' vaunted power play only managed two goals last night and, coupled with Travis Moen, he continues to be the Habs' best penalty killer.
3. The Habs Owned the Defensive Slot
Montreal did an excellent job of boxing out the Vancouver players for most of the night, especially on the power play, and this despite the excellent work by Ryan Kesler to constantly be in Price's face.
Try as they may, the extremely skilled Canucks weren't able to get to the high slot with the puck very often and, as such, the dangerous scoring chances from prime locations were kept to a minimum.
As much as Jacques Martin's system can stifle the offensive instincts of a team, its ability to keep opponents to the outside is truly its crown jewel.
Time and again last night, the Canucks had trouble getting to the front of the net, especially on the power play, where they went 2-of-6 and had no answer for Hal Gill lying down to cut the cross-crease pass.
The Canucks still did a great job of getting bodies in front of and all around Price, but his focus was as unwavering as his desire to win and his strong work, backed up by excellent defense, sealed the deal.
4. Lars Eller Needs To Play at Center
Eller hasn't exactly been ripping up the league in his inaugural season in Montreal, but he is still a tremendously skilled player, despite what many Habs fans are saying.
The thing is that Eller is a natural center and playmaker and for most of the season, he has been playing on the wing. In the few brief stints that we have seen from him at center, he has looked his best and more importantly, most comfortable.
Last night with Jacques Martin juggling his lines, Eller, who has played on the wing with Scott Gomez and Kostitsyn since the All-Star break, found himself centering Kostitsyn and Moen on the fourth line.
At first glance, that might seem like punishment, but with Eller up the middle, a bona fide goal scorer (Kostitsyn) on his wing, the fourth line was one of the Habs' most effective. They used speed, skill and grit to produce the Habs' second goal—Kostitsyn's first in 12 games and first point in nine.
With Moen digging the puck out of the corners, Eller setting it up and Kostitsyn getting into shooting position, the trio complemented each other very well and helped bring balance to the Canadiens lineup.
It is amazing how much more you notice Eller's skill and vision when he is playing at center as opposed to wing, so here's hoping Coach Martin leaves him there.
5. Price Had His Work Cut Out for Him
Price, like the rest of the team, hasn't played his best hockey of late.
So much so that in his last six games prior to last night, Price had let in 23 goals for an abysmal 3.83 GAA, with only one victory to show for it.
Needless to say, for the Habs to have any chance of defeating the first overall Canucks last night, Price needed to shine.
And shine he did.
While Price wasn't really tested early, the Canucks came to life over the back half of the first and took control in the second. Moreover, as they started to rack up the scoring chances, the Canucks game plan took shape and its prime component was to crash and crowd Price's crease.
With an almost constant screen in front of him—from players like Kesler—and players crashing around him like waves against the rocks, Price somehow managed to stand his ground.
Fighting through traffic to see the puck, displaying excellent lateral movement and unbelievable puck-tracking abilities, Price was clearly in the zone. After two terrible past experiences in his home province, Price really wanted the win last night and you could see it in his play.
So as much as Quebec-born goalies seem to bring their A-games to the Bell Centre, Price certainly returned the favour to the Canucks last night and is the main reason for the victory.
Standings and Next Game
The win gives the Habs 71 points in the standings with a 32-22-7 record, good enough for sixth overall in the East. Ahead of Montreal are the Bruins with 75 points and one game in hand, the Penguins with 77 points and the Capitals with 74.
Montreal, who was only able to salvage two out of a possible six points on this Western road trip, now return to the friendly climes of the Bell Centre for a Thursday night tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs.