With the trade deadline finally behind them, the Montreal Canadiens started their march toward the playoffs last night in Atlanta.
In the two previous meetings between these squads, the Thrashers have come out with the "W" each time. However, when they last played, the Thrashers were one of the hotter teams in the league and still in playoff contention.
Atlanta has fallen off the map considerably since then and out of the playoff picture.
Leading up to the deadline, Thrashers GM Rick Dudley made several moves to try and bolster his floundering squad and give them enough kick to get over the playoff hump.
Well, at least last night, that plan didn't work out so well.
The Canadiens were the better team in the first period, despite being outshot 9-5, but were completely dominated by the Thrashers over the final 40 minutes. With the Habs once again getting themselves into lazy penalty problems, the Thrashers were able to seize and hold the momentum for long stretches despite being held off the scoresheet.
The Canadiens defenders did a good job of keeping most of the Atlanta shots to the outside, but the real story of the night was Carey Price.
Price stopped nine shots in the first, 16 in the second, 15 in the third and 40 for the night.
With the Canadiens back on their heels, Price held the fort and was only 5:46 away from getting his seventh shutout of the season when Brent Sopel made a brutal turnover resulting in the Thrashers' lone goal of the game.
Sometimes a team loses games they should win and wins games that they should lose.
Last night's game was an example of the latter, as the Canadiens used opportunistic scoring, special teams and excellent goaltending to secure their 34th win of the season.
Final score: Habs 3 - Thrashers 1
Habs scorers: Max Pacioretty (12), James Wizniewski (7), Brian Gionta (23)
Thrashers scorers: Nik Antropov (11)
Three stars: 1. Carey Price, 2. Max Pacioretty, 3. Nik Antropov
Play of the night
With the Canadiens holding on to a one-goal lead, Thrashers goalie Chris Mason on the bench for the extra attacker and Atlanta pressing for the tying goal, the puck popped out to the neutral zone. Habs Captain Brian Gionta turned on the jets, beat his man to the puck and launched it into the empty net for the insurance marker with 46 seconds to play.
That was the best and most well deserved empty-net goal I've ever seen!
Point of Interest
Taking two too-many-men-on-the-ice bench minors last night, the Habs earned the dubious distinction of having the most too-many-men-on-the-ice penalties in the league this season with 12.
1. Paul Mara brings some thump
Just under five minutes into the first period with the teams locked in a scoreless tie, Paul Mara took two strides from center ice and put his shoulder into the Thrashers defender at the Atlanta blueline.
Not only did his hit knock the Thrashers player on his butt, but it freed the puck, caused some chaos in the Atlanta zone and opened a seam.
Benoit Pouliot jumped on the loose puck, chipping it off the boards to David Desharnais, who skated in for a partial break. Thrashers defender Mark Stuart had no choice but to swing his stick at Desharnais in an attempt to block his shot, taking a slashing penalty in the process.
While the Habs were unable to score on the PP, the play by Mara illustrates a major component that has been sorely missing from the Habs back end this season, and that is physicality.
While Mara is definitely a depth defender, he is a slow skater and plays far from a perfect game, but he does bring a physical edge that is in short supply in the Habs lineup.
So while Mara isn't going to see top minutes in the Habs lineup, he brings a boatload of experience, is good in the room and has the toughness to get the job done when the chips are down in the playoffs.
I was still surprised to see Yannick Weber scratched in favour of Mara, as I feel the Habs are a better team with Weber—who is a much more talented player. That being said, it is nice to know that Montreal has the option of inserting some additional grit against bigger, scrappier teams like the Thrashers.
2. PP change-up
The Canadiens power play—which experienced a spike when James Wizniewski was acquired but which has slumped some in recent weeks—has seen its share of changes lately, in an attempt to wake it up.
Originally, Jacques Martin had the Wiz playing with P.K. Subban on the point for the first wave of the power play. In more recent games, however, the Habs have been using the Wiz with Roman Hamrlik and for the last two matches, the Wiz has been paired with Plekanec at the point.
Using a forward on the point is a move that many have been wanting to see for quite some time now and many teams in the league use a forward on the point for the PP. Until recently, the Habs' coaching staff has, for whatever reason, been completely unwilling to give it a try.
Last night, on the Habs second PP of the game, James Wizniewski scored the Habs' second goal of the game, his seventh of the season, when he pinched down low to flip a backdoor rebound past Mason.
Was the goal the result of having Plekanec on the back end with him? Likely not.
So while the PP produced a goal with both players on the ice, the problem was that Plekanec seemed to struggle playing the point, twice turning the puck over and taking a penalty each time while trying to cover up his error.
I definitely liked what I saw from an offensive perspective, but it is clear that Plekanec is either not comfortable playing the point or is just not used to it. As such, he either needs more practice time to get comfortable with the defensive responsibilities or the Habs need to go back to the triangle of doom: Subban, Wizniewski and Michael Cammalleri.
3. Price was in the zone
Yep, Price is the uncontested MVP of this team.
Having just been named the Canadiens player of the month for February, Price put on a clinic over the final 40 minutes of the game to earn the victory.
Now to his defense's credit, they did a pretty good job of boxing out the Thrashers forwards and clearing the front of the net meaning that most of the shots were from the outside with few second chances.
Still, Price was positionally excellent and made several spectacular saves from eight feet or less, to keep the Thrashers off the board with his teammates struggling to keep up.
The amazing thing to watch with Price is how calm he is in the net and how effortless he makes many difficult saves seem.
Price finished the night with a sparkling .976 save percentage and was just under six minutes away from his seventh shutout of the year. More importantly, the win was Price's 29th of the season, a high water mark for his career.
As I said when the trade deadline was over, the roster is now set and the Habs will go as far as Price can carry them in the playoffs.
4. Max Pacioretty continues his ascension
After going through three games without a point, Pacioretty now has three points (2G, 1A) over the last three games. In addition, he is the hottest Hab over the last 13 games with 11 points (6G, 5A) over that span.
Patches got the party started for the Canadiens last night when he grabbed the puck at the point, took one step towards the Thrashers net and fired a bullet past Mason. The shot deflected off Evander Kane's stick on that play, but it validates the old adage that "you can't score if you don't shoot."
The goal was unassisted and like they said on L’Anti-chambre last night, that seems to be the only way to score when you're playing with Scott Gomez!
Pacioretty continued his excellent play throughout the rest of the game and seemed like the only Canadiens player who was actually skating. His speed and determination drew a second period hooking penalty by Tobias Enstrom when he split the Thrashers D and tried to charge to the net.
The play really illustrates what the term "power-forward" means and why it is such a critical piece to any team's success.
Skating at full stride with two Thrashers' defenders draped all over him, Pacioretty used his size and speed to fight them off, still managing to get a shot on net, albeit a weak one.
That is a play that no other player on the team, except for perhaps Andrei Kostitsyn, has the skill and strength to pull off and it seems like Patches is starting to play that way on a consistent basis.
Pacioretty's goal and assist put him 10th overall in team scoring with 22 points in 34 games. His 0.64 points per game (PPG) pace would put him on target for 53 total points over an 82 game season. His 12 goals put him in sixth overall on the team for goals scored and his 0.35 goals per game would put him on pace for 28.7 goals over an 82 game season.
Not bad for a rookie, eh?
5. The penalty kill was in full effect
The Canadiens were once again unable to stay out of the penalty box last night, and as has become the case on an ongoing basis, most of their penalties were of the lazy variety.
The Habs took seven penalties on the night: two for interference, one for hooking, one for tripping, two for too-many-men and one for delay of game.
With Montreal again incapable of staying out of the penalty box, the Thrashers had the pleasure of playing with a man-advantage five times. Well perhaps "pleasure" is not the right word considering the excellent job the Canadiens did on the PK, but the continuous parade to the box definitely helped Atlanta keep the momentum.
On the PK Montreal was constantly on top of the Atlanta players, quickly closing gaps and taking away their time and space to render their attack ineffective, create turnovers and otherwise shut down their PP.
The addition of Sopel on the back end is paying immediate dividends too—despite his horrible third period turnover—as he continues to block shots and shooting lanes to make the Habs PK that much more effective. In addition, he is helping to reduce the amount of ice that Roman Hamrlik is seeing, especially short handed, and that should keep him fresh for the playoffs.
With the postseason drawing near, the Canadiens need to make sure their special teams are working at full capacity and, shutting down five Thrashers' PKs while scoring a PP marker of their own is a good start.
Standings and Next Game
The win by the Habs kicks off the homestretch on the right foot and, more importantly, earns them two well-needed points in the standings. The win is also timely considering that the Rangers lost 3-2 to the Sabres.
Montreal has now won three of their last four games and has 75 points in the standings, is sixth overall in the East, is three points behind the Caps, five points behind the Pens and six points behind the Bruins who have one game in hand.
Behind the Canadiens are the Rangers with 70 points and one more game played, the Hurricanes with 69 points and the Sabres with 67 points and two games in hand.
Montreal now travels to Florida where they take on the Panthers on Thursday and the Lightning on Saturday, before a huge Tuesday night tilt against the Bruins at the Bell Centre next week.