The Montreal Canadiens were back to their old tricks yesterday as they took on the Panthers in Florida. The game started with good pace, but the Habs once again fell into bad habits.
Good rhythm to game? Check. Nice early scoring chance? Check. Good jump from your players? Check. Useless early-game penalty that has the potential to destroy any accumulated momentum? Check.
Fortunately for Habs fans, instead of losing momentum off the early penalty, they came roaring right back, intent on reversing that trend. Less than three minutes after the penalty had expired, Hal Gill—yes Hal Gill—fired his first goal of the season and 34th of his career past a screened Tomas Vokoun.
The goal was Gill's first in 100 games, dating back to December 31, 2009.
Andrei Kostitsyn kept his hot streak going when he took a short pass from Travis Moen and rifled it past Vokoun from 30 feet out with no screen. That was enough for Panthers coach Peter DeBoer, who pulled Vokoun in favour of Scott Clemmensen after giving up two goals on three shots.
Sadly for Florida, their fate didn't change with a new keeper in the net, as the Canadiens added two more before the end of the game to bury the depleted Panthers 4-0.
While he wasn't tested often, Carey Price was the uncontested star of the game, coming up with several excellent saves, especially in the third period and on a late second period power play. At that point, it was 3-0 Montreal and a goal by the Panthers could have let them back into a game that they far too often looked content to lose.
Price earned a 30th win—second in the league—for the first time in his career.
He also earned his seventh shutout of the season—11th of his career and second most in the league this season—and is making a strong case for both Hart and Vezina Trophy consideration.
Final score: Habs 4, Panthers 0
Habs scorers: Hal Gill (1), Andrei Kostitsyn (16), David Desharnais (7), Lars Eller (5)
Panthers scorers: None
Three stars: 1. Carey Price; 2. Andrei Kostitsyn; 3. James Wizniewski
1. Well hello, Mr. Kostitsyn, it's nice to see you again!
With a goal and an assist last night, Andrei Kostitsyn has quietly become one of the hottest players in the Canadiens lineup.
Kostitsyn now has seven points (3G, 4A) and a plus-three rating over his last five games. The interesting thing about his resurgence is that it has all taken place since he was placed on a line with Lars Eller and Travis Moen.
I've previously discussed how Eller is a much better center than winger and how the Habs would never get the best out of him as a winger. So switching him to center with Kostitsyn was a logical move.
At least to me it was.
Almost more importantly, the trend of players suddenly performing when they are no longer playing with Scott Gomez continues.
This article by JT from "The H does NOT stand for Habs" spells out the numbers and they are ugly.
If you're not into reading it, I'll spare you the suspense: every winger has a better points per game (PPG) average when playing with Tomas Plekanec versus playing with Gomez, with the exception of Benoit Pouliot.
As for Kostitsyn, well, the timing of his revival could not be more important to the Habs as they enter the home stretch and are in desperate need of secondary scoring. But we've seen this movie before and we know how it ends.
Arpon Basu pointed out on Twitter last night that while Kostitsyn lacks consistency from game to game, he is consistent from season to season averaging 0.55, 0.56 and 0.56 (so far this season) PPG over the last three seasons.
So while Kostitsyn's production is great, I caution fans not to get down on him if it drops off again. This is his sixth year in the league and if we don't know his trends by now, we never will.
2. The Habs did what they had to do.
Despite only managing six shots in the first period, Montreal was the better team and didn't have much trouble handing the lowly Panthers.
To Florida's credit, their lineup reads more like an AHL roster than an NHL team, so you can't really expect too much more from them. That being said, the Habs need to beat teams like the Panthers and far too often are unable to.
As a team that often plays up or down to the talent level of their opponents, the Habs avoided the trap of taking the opposition lightly and outplayed the Panthers, kept their shots mostly to the outside, cleared rebounds and screening player and, overall, made short work of the Florida.
Good for them because that is exactly what they were supposed to do!
3. Bench management
Since acquiring Paul Mara and Brent Sopel, Coach Martin has been doing some shuffling and tinkering with his players' ice time. And, at first glance, that might make a lot of sense since many of them, like Roman Hamrlik and P.K. Subban, have been playing a boatload of minutes lately.
So why not rest them in time for the playoffs? Makes sense to me.
To a man, the Canadiens defensive squad had the following ice time last night:
Hamrlik 22:24 (1:09 on the PP), Subban 18:53 (1:09 on the PP), Wizniewski 20:41 (0:51 on the PP), Sopel 18:47, Alexandre Picard 17:57, Hal Gill 20:31.
I understand the desire to rest players, but shouldn't the desire to win and ice your best lineup trump the former?
With Yannick Weber and Paul Mara both available for duty, why was Picard, who is clearly behind them on the depth chart, in the lineup? No offense to Picard, but having either Mara or Weber in the lineup makes the Habs a better team.
In addition, why did The Wiz play over 20 minutes, but only 51 seconds on the PP? Isn't he the hired gun who is supposed to keep the PP rolling? And if you're trying to rest Hamrlik, as the coach said publicly this week, then why play him for 1:09 on the PP instead of the Wiz?
On the topic of strange lineup changes, why was Tom Pyatt in the lineup instead of Ryan White?
White has done nothing but show he belongs in the handful of games he's played and he makes the third line, with Desharnais and Pouliot, a much better line.
Without White mucking it up in the corners and the front of the net, you could see that the third line was much less effective last night.
Pyatt, like Picard, is an acceptable player, but the Habs are a better team without these players in the lineup. So to have them randomly inserted in the roster in place of two players who undoubtedly bring more to the table makes no sense at all.
It's almost like the coach is trying to be fair or some other such insanity. You'd figure if he's going to sub any players it would be for an opportunity to rest some of the veterans.
I guess I'll never fully understand the Jacques Martin way.
4. David Desharnais is a legit NHL player
We have yet to see what he can do in the playoffs where games are much tighter, play is more physical and every inch of ice is that much more hotly contested. That being said, so far in this NHL season Desharnais is showing that he is a legitimate NHL player.
For some reason Jacques Martin and Co. have been reducing his ice time a lot over the last few games. But despite this reduction, Desharnais is still putting points on the board with 10 (4G, 6A) and a plus-four rating over his last 11 games.
This despite playing 5:01, 8:53, 10:46, 13:50 and 10:24 over his last five games.
In addition, having played 26 games this season, Desharnais has 15 points (7G, 8A) and a plus-one rating. This translates into a 0.577 PPG total, which would equal 47 points over 82 games, all while averaging no more than 12:17 per game.
I still think that the real solution for this team's lineup is to play Gomez on the third or even fourth line with a couple of muckers and promote Desharnais to the second line with Max Pacioretty and Brian Gionta or Benoit Pouliot.
The result would likely be more production from the second line and with the third line seemingly in place, the Canadiens would suddenly have three capable scoring lines.
Sounds pretty good to me!
5. What is the plan for the Habs' top line?
Since uniting AK46 with Eller and Moen, Jacques Martin has had Jeff Halpern on the top line with Tomas Plekanec and Michael Cammalleri. And while they seem to be playing decently together, Jeff Halpern is not a top-line player.
Halpern, the Canadiens' best faceoff man this season with a 56.77 percent success rate, is now playing on the wing, a position that does not allow him to use this unique skill of his.
Moreover, while he has 23 points (10G, 13A) this season, Halpern is not a goal-scorer, especially not a first-line scorer. As a result, the Plekanec-Cammalleri duo are once again in the position where they are flanked by a player who is not up to snuff.
Now that the trade deadline has passed, there are no reinforcements coming from anywhere and as such, this is the lineup that will skate into the playoff. So does that mean that Jeff Halpern is now going to be a first-line winger?
Whereas Cammalleri has looked more comfortable since returning from injury, over the last two games, and especially last night, it looks like the frustration is starting to creep back into his play.
Cammy is the Habs' best and highest paid sniper and it is looking more and more like he is not a fan of the way Jacques Martin runs the ship. While nothing will happen in the short term, this is an issue that is bound to come to a head at some point in the future.
Standings and Next Game
The streaking Canadiens, winners of three straight games, now have 77 points in the standings with a 35-23-1 record. More importantly, their road record has finally reached the .500 mark at 15-15-1 (no longer the worst among playoff teams).
In addition to their three-game win streak, Montreal is 3-1 in their past four and 5-3-2 in their last ten.
Despite Montreal's success, the teams ahead of them all won last night, meaning that Montreal kept pace rather than inching closer.
Ahead of the Canadiens are the Capitals with 80 points, the Pens with 81, the Lightning with 81 and one game in hand and the Bruins with 83 points and a game in hand.
Behind them, the Habs are starting to pull away from the usual suspects with the Canes in seventh with 71 points, the Rangers with 70 in eighth and one more game played and the Sabres in ninth with 68 and two games in hand.
The Habs will now jet to Tampa to take on the Lightning on Saturday night in a critical four-point match. A win by the Canadiens would put them only two points behind Tampa in the standings and allow them to keep a good buffer on the teams behind them.
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