Well that was a costly loss, now wasn't it?
The Montreal Canadiens are a team that just can't seem to catch a break this season. Playing the blazing hot Capitals last night, the Habs lost two more players to injury—Tomas Plekanec and Jeff Halpern—in a loss that hurts more than just in the standings.
The Caps, who had won their last eight games, extended their streak to nine straight and are a very different team from the one that lost in seven games to Montreal in the first round of the playoffs last year.
The game started on a strange note, with both Carey Price and Braden Holtby letting in fluky goals before the 1:30 mark of the first period. Throw in a Paul Mara-Matt Bradley fight only 22 seconds later, and this game had a bit of a carnival feel to it.
With the Habs losing Halpern after one shift in the second and Plekanec following him to the dressing room near the end of the same frame, the Canadiens were limited to three lines for a good part of the game.
This put a huge load on youngsters David Desharnais and Lars Eller.
But the story of the game was the aggressive Capitals forecheck and speed, as they dominated the Canadiens for large stretches of the game. As has become customary, if it was not for Price, the Habs would have been out of this game in the second period.
Washington outshot Montreal 11-3 in the first, 19-6 in the second and 41-26 overall, with Price making spectacular save after spectacular save to keep his team in it.
Montreal was able to tie the game at two in the second off Andrei Kostitsyn's 17th of the season before the Caps potted two third period goals for the win.
Final score: Caps 4 - Habs 2
Habs scorers: Travis Moen (5), Andrei Kostitsyn (17)
Caps scorers: Marcus Johansson (10, 11), Brooks Laich (16), Mike Knuble (17)
Three stars: 1. Marcus Johansson, 2. Carey Price, 3. Andrei Kostitsyn
1. The Capitals are a changed team.
The Capitals, who have been an offensive juggernaut the last few seasons but tend to burn out in the playoffs, changed their system of play this season. No longer content with being a top team during the regular season that ultimately fails to get it done in the playoffs, Caps' coach Bruce Boudreau has implemented a system that trades off offense for sound defense and a more balanced overall game.
Well, so far so good, as the Caps have the fourth lowest goals against in the league at 173 in 71 games.
It hasn't been all easy for the Caps, however, as they went through a now famous eight-game losing streak that was immortalized on HBO's 24/7 series. But now, with the post-season fast approaching, the Caps seem to "get" their new system and are looking more and more like the team to beat in the East.
You could see the difference on their penalty kill last night as the Caps defenders, usually running around in their own end, did an excellent job of taking away the high slot and front of the net. In addition, the wingers were incredibly aggressive on the Habs' point players, pressuring them into quick passes and not giving them much to shoot at.
The result was that Montreal was often unable to set up plays in the Caps zone and, as such, didn't have much of a chance of winning the game.
2. MVP! MVP!
With chants of "MVP! MVP!" raining down on Carey Price as he turned aside shot after shot, it is clear that people are starting to take notice of the Habs young netminder.
Now the game was played in front of his home crowd, so I don't think that is the best litmus test. But what is more telling is how many media types are starting to mention Price's name in the same breath as the Hart Trophy.
And how can you argue with that?
Montreal is a team playing without three of their top four defenseman, they were missing their top sniper for close to two months, they have a second-line center who is having the worst statistical season of his career, they just lost their most effective top-six winger (Max Pacioretty) for the season and they are still in sixth overall in the East, with a comfortable five-point lead over the Rangers.
That the Canadiens have been able to maintain a winning record despite missing a bevy of players that would cripple any team in the league, is because of Price's All-Star performances this season.
Take any team in the league and remove three of their top four defenseman and their top sniper for two months, and see how well they do.
On the flip side, put Price on any team in the league and you have to give them five more victories on the year?
To put that in perspective, if Price was playing for the Leafs for example, they would have a 35-25-10 record good for 80 points and the seventh spot in the East. That's a pretty significant difference from their current 30-30-10 record for 70 points and 12th in the East.
Would either of the Sedin brothers make that difference for the Leafs? How about Tim Thomas?
That is the question you have to ask yourself when thinking about Price for league MVP and, in my books, he is at the head of that class.
3. Montreal once again took too many penalties.
With four penalties in the first period, one in the second and seven for the night, Montreal handed the Caps five power play opportunities, including almost 1:30 of 5-on-3 play to end the first period.
The Caps were able to capitalize—pun fully intended—twice with the man-advantage and that was ultimately the difference in the game. That Washington wasn't able to score more PP goals is a testament to Price's incredible play last night.
Unfortunately, Montreal has had this problem all season long, so I don't think it is going to change any time soon, which is not a good thing going forward. Come playoff time, this kind of behavior could not only lose them games, but entire series.
4. The Habs defensive coverage was suspect.
The Canadiens, who are usually solid defensively, looked lost far too often in their own end last night.
One of the hallmarks of this Canadiens team is their defense-first, lock-down-the-neutral-zone mentality but last night, they struggled to contain the Caps' speed as they blitzed the Habs zone all game.
Montreal was far too often chasing the puck in their own end and missing assignments as they seemed overwhelmed by the Caps' attack.
There was a rare sequence in the third period right after a 4-on-4 situation, where Montreal was dominating play for a few minutes, led by Lars Eller and co. However just after the sequence, Alex Ovechkin carried the puck down the ice, shadowed by P.K. Subban, and was ultimately able to push a pass out front to Johansson who fired it past Price from five feet away.
David Desharnais, who was supposed to be covering Johansson, was caught watching the puck instead of his man which is what left the Caps player with a clear scoring chance from the slot.
With the Canadiens losing Jeff Halpern and Tomas Plekanec in the second period, Desharnais got a lot more ice time last night and his missed assignment is something that is going to happen to a young player still learning the ropes.
As for the rest of the team, well, they just looked a step behind the play and need a stronger, more cohesive effort against the Lightning tomorrow night.
5. Sooner or later the injuries are going to catch up to the Habs.
With Plekanec and Halpern out with "lower body injuries", that makes seven regular players who are out of the Habs lineup—Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, Jaroslav Spacek, Mathieu Darche, Max Pacioretty, Plekanec and Halpern.
As previously mentioned, the Habs have somehow been able to maintain a winning record despite all of these injuries—largely due to Price's play this season—but if Halpern and especially Plekanec are out for any extended period of time Montreal will truly be facing a monumental task.
At some point the injuries have to start catching up to the Habs.
The Canadiens have two important games coming up against the Lightning and Rangers and only 12 more to play this season. Despite the personnel losses, Montreal should be able to, at a minimum, sputter into the playoffs. But, again, if these players are gone for a prolonged period of time, Montreal is going to be in tough come playoff time.
Standings and Next Game
The loss moves the Habs record to 38-25-7, stalled at sixth in the East with 83 points.
With Boston and the Caps winning last night, the group ahead of the Habs got a little breathing room over Montreal.
Boston has 87 points with one game in hand, the Caps who are nipping on the Flyers heels for first overall in the East, have 92 points, the Lighting have 87 points and the Pens have 90 with one more game played.
Montreal still has a decent cushion on the teams behind them with the seventh place Rangers at 78 points with one more game played, the Sabres with 76 points and the Hurricanes with 74.
The Habs schedule is jam-packed for the rest of the week as they take on the Lightning tomorrow night at the Bell Centre, the Rangers in New York on Friday and the Wild in Minnesota on Sunday.
Kamal is a freelance Habs writer, Senior Writer/Editor-in-Chief of HabsAddict.com, Montreal Canadiens Blogger on Hockeybuzz.com and Habs writer on TheFranchise.ca. Kamal is also a weekly contributor to the Sunday Shinny on The Team 990 (AM 990) every Sunday from 8 - 9 AM. Listen live at http://www.team990.com/