February was supposed to be an easy schedule for the Habs with 10 out of 13 games against teams that were lower than them in the standings. In addition, eight of the games were at home where the Habs have enjoyed the bulk of their success this season.
Prior to last night, the Habs were 5-5-2 over 12 games in February, with only two wins over their previous nine.
Montreal started the game well enough but fell into its familiar habit of taking early penalties, with Scott Gomez going to the box for four minutes with a costly high stick. While the Canes were unable to score, they used the PP to seize the momentum, outshooting Montreal 11-7 in the first.
The game had a strange feel to it with large stretches where nothing much was going on, despite the back-and-forth play. And for a second game in a row, the Canadiens were extremely sloppy in their own end.
Alex Auld, who got the surprise start in favour of illness-ridden Carey Price, was decent in the net despite turning over the puck to the Canes for their first goal.
Montreal took the lead twice in the game and the Canes came back to tie it each time, taking a 3-3 score into the third.
The game seemed destined for overtime until rookie Jeff Skinner tripped up P.K. Subban behind the Habs net, giving them a power play with less than four minutes to play in the game. That left it up to Andrei Kostitsyn to tip his 15th of the season past Ward for the game-winner.
While neither team took a ton of penalties—the Canes had three PPs to the Habs' one—special teams were the name of the game as the Habs blanked all three Canes power plays while scoring on their lone man advantage.
Final score: Habs 4, Canes 3
Habs scorers: Mike Cammalleri (15), Lars Eller (4), Tomas Plekanec (20), Andrei Kostitsyn (15)
Canes scorers: Jussi Jokinen (16), Tuomo Ruutu (15), Cory Stillman (8)
Three stars: 1. Michael Cammalleri, 2. Tomas Plekanec, 3. Andrei Kostitsyn
Point of Interest
In scoring his 20th goal of the season, Plekanec becomes the first Canadiens player to score 20 or more in five consecutive seasons, since Stephane Richer did it six times in a row.
1. Brent Sopel Is Going To Fit in Nicely
Playing his first game in a Canadiens uniform, 34-year-old Brent Sopel looked like a kid in a candy store.
At least before the game started he did.
Sopel got his first taste of the media—a scrum of around 12 journalists—during the day and his first taste of the Habs faithful during the game.
As part of the starting lineup, it was awesome watching Sopel looking around the Bell Centre as the crowd sang the Canadian national anthem, clearly in awe of what he was experiencing. He was soaking it all in and had to be thinking, "I'm certainly not in Atlanta anymore!"
On the ice, Sopel played an acceptable game considering that he hasn't yet had a chance to practice with the team.
You could see his unfamiliarity with Jacques Martin's system, as he made a second period offensive pinch leading to a 2-on-1 the other way. Martin is sure to hit him on the knuckles with a ruler for that one!
That turnover aside, Sopel was good 5-on-5 and solid on the PK.
He finished the night with no points, one blocked shot, one body check and 17:34 of ice time. Acceptable numbers that will surely get better as he adapts to the Jacques Martin way.
2. Auld Looked Determined but Still Struggled To Get the Win
After a less than spectacular outing against the Leafs that saw Auld let in three goals on nine shots before being pulled, you could tell that he wanted the win badly last night.
Unfortunately, things didn’t start off very well for the veteran backup.
After 7:25 into the first period Auld ventured behind his net to stop the puck, turning it over to Jiri Tlusty who threw it out front to Brandon Sutter for a shot at the empty net. Auld made the first stop but was unable to block the rebound by Jussi Jokinen.
When that goal went in, you kind of wondered if it was going to be another long night for Auld. Fortunately for the Habs, Auld settled his game down and made several quality saves to keep them from falling into a deep hole.
Just like the previous game against the Leafs, Auld was not to blame for the other two goals that the Canes scored, as the Canadiens were once again extremely sloppy in the defensive zone.
Ultimately, Auld did the job stopping 28-of-31 shots for a .903 save percentage and more importantly, his fifth W of the season.
3. Cammalleri Looks Much Better Than He Did Before His Injury
Michael Cammalleri has played four games since returning from a separated shoulder, and while he had zero points over his first two, he now has four in his last two (two G, two A, plus-four).
More importantly, and unlike before his injury, Cammalleri looks calm and confident—more like the player from last year's playoffs than the mostly frustrated player thorough 44 games this year.
As talented a player as Cammalleri is, he wasn't exactly having a banner season before his injury in January against the Sabres.
And as unfortunate as his absence from the lineup was, you hoped that he would come back a new man, playing without the frustration of scoring only 13 goals over 44 games.
Well, so far so good.
Not only has he scored two goals in his last two games, but seems to be free of the psychological baggage that held his game back prior to injury. Now two games does not a turnaround make, but if Cammy can keep playing this way the Canadiens should see a lot of production from their top sniper.
4. Andrei Kostitsyn and Lars Eller Make Beautiful Music Together
Eller and Kostitsyn, playing 10:30 and 11:27 minutes respectively, along with Travis Moen, looked like a very good line last night.
This was the second game in a row that the trio has been together and you can see that their styles complement each other well.
Moreover, AK and Eller are starting to develop some excellent chemistry together.
With AK using his size and deadly shot, Eller is finally playing with a bona fide goal scorer on his line. As a result, his excellent vision and creativity are no longer going to waste because he actually has a target to dish the puck to.
In the game against the Leafs, these two players connected for Andrei Kostitsyn's 14th of the season and last night Kostitsyn, who is playing his best hockey in a long time on Eller's line, returned the favour.
Kostitsyn got into a foot race with Canes defenseman Carson and laid a solid body check on him freeing the puck. Kostitsyn then fired a pass out front to Eller who was able to flip it past Cam Ward for his fourth of the season, with Moen mucking it up in the crease.
Despite their limited minutes, this looks like a line that could provide consistent secondary scoring for the Habs and considering the mess that the Gomez always seems to be in, it's a welcomed surprise for Montreal.
5. The Trade Deadline Is Two Days Away and the Players Are Nervous
While the trade deadline is an exciting time for fans waiting to see if or how their team's GM will modify their roster—it tends to be a stressful time for the players.
Some clearly know their time with their team is up, while others are on the fence and others still are fairly certain that they won't be going anywhere.
That being said, an air of uncertainty reigns over all NHL dressing rooms right now, and that feeling can cause stress and a lack of focus among the players.
RDS got the speculation train going last night by questioning Roman Hamrlik's lack of ice time during a four-minute penalty kill in the first period. Their theory was that perhaps Hamrlik was going to be moved because he always plays on the PP.
I tend to think that if he was being moved he wouldn't be in the lineup at all and the more likely scenario is it was just and an old body needing rest. Also, the addition of PK specialist Brent Sopel to the lineup gives the Habs the ability to rest Hamrlik a little for the playoffs rather than playing him upwards of 22 minutes per game.
That being said, you really never know.
But what about players like Andrei Kostitsyn, Benoit Pouliot and Yannick Weber? While nothing is set in stone, these three seem like the most likely candidates to be moved if the Canadiens are going after a top six winger, for example.
I think, with about 24 hours to go until the trade deadline, there is an equal chance of Pierre Gauthier standing pat as there is of him making a big trade.
Despite the win, the Canadiens are still an offensively anemic team that needs more scoring punch. Last night's win was only their fifth this season when the opposition scores three or more goals (5-22-4).
If I were a betting man I'd say that Gauthier would make at least one more move before tomorrow's deadline.
Whether it is a big or a small one remains to be seen.
Standings and Next Game
The win gives the Habs a huge two points, and they have now won two of their last three games. Montreal sits in sixth in the Eastern Conference with 73 points in the standings and a 33-23-7 record.
The Habs keep pace with the Capitals, 3-2 winners over the Isles, who have 76 points in the same number of games played. The Bruins are still tops in the Northeast Division with 77 points and two games in hand on Montreal.
The standings stay the same behind the Habs with the Rangers in seventh with 70 points, the Canes with 67, the Sabres with 65 and two games in hand and the Leafs with 62 points and one game in hand.
The Habs now have two days off before taking on the sinking Thrashers on Tuesday in Atlanta.
What will the Canadiens roster look like by then? Will Gauthier make a move or two, or will he stand pat?
Tune in tomorrow to find out.
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