After a few nervous moments for Habs fans in recent weeks, the Montreal Canadiens were finally able to clinch a playoff spot last night.
With only three games remaining prior to yesterday's tilt against the Chicago Blackhawks, Habs-nation was cautiously optimistic about the Canadiens' chances. However Montreal fans had bad memories of last year when they qualified in the final game of the season, losing in overtime to the Leafs.
With games Thursday against the Sens and Saturday against the Leafs, the hope was that they could get in done before the weekend.
And get it done they did.
Yesterday's 2-1 overtime victory over the Blackhawks was the best and most entertaining game of the Habs season.
Both teams, whose games are based on skill and speed, came to play and win. As such, it was a fast-paced playoff-like game that had a ton of beautiful plays and even more spectacular saves.
Carey Price and Cory Crawford—playing his first career game in front of his hometown crowd—put on goaltending clinics, turning aside shot after shot to keep it a low-scoring affair.
Michael Cammalleri opened the scoring for Montreal when his shot, off an Andrei Kostitsyn pass, deflected off the Hawks defender and past Crawford at 6:55 of the second period.
Patrick Kane got that one back less than four minutes later with a spectacular fake on Mathieu Darche before firing it past Price.
In a game where momentum swung back and forth both goaltenders had to be at their best. Price, in particular, elevated his game making 20 saves as the Hawks took control of the game in the third.
Next up was overtime and a tripping penalty by Hawks captain Jonathan Toews only 37 seconds in. Montreal took advantage of the ensuing 4-on-3 PP with P.K. Subban powering a beautiful Kostitsyn feed top corner past Crawford. The goal was his 14th of the season and it punched the Habs' ticket to the post-season.
In a lot of ways, this game was a microcosm of the Canadiens season: Montreal wouldn't be in the playoffs nor have won last night's game without Price's brilliance.
Final Score: Habs 2 - Blackhawks 1 (OT)
Habs scorers: Michael Cammalleri (18), P.K. Subban (14)
Hawks scorers: Patrick Kane (27)
Three stars: 1. P.K. Subban, 2. Carey Price, 3. Michael Cammalleri
P.K. Subban is ready for the playoffs
I can't wait to see what Subban can do once the playoffs start. Sure he played in the playoffs last year, but he now has a full season under his belt and is a better player for it.
If his play since January is any indication, this kid is ready for prime time.
Last night, against the offensively potent Chicago Blackhawks, Subban was once again the Habs' best defender. He and Hal Gill were tasked with shutting down players like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and Subban was ready for the challenge.
The battle between Toews and Subban was epic and on display all night. And while they each took turns winning battles, overall, Subban did an excellent job of shutting down "captain serious"—Toews was held off the scoresheet.
Moreover, the battle between the two players is what produced the Toews tripping penalty on Subban in overtime. While some are crying foul on the play this morning, if you look at the replay you can clearly see Toews' stick tripping up Subban.
Was it intentional? No. But it was a penalty.
Despite his excellent play, there continues to be a dark side to Subban's game and it is not his post-goal celebrations.
The Canadiens are second in the league for most minor penalties taken, and Subban is first on the Habs in that department with 124 minutes. Last night, he was at it again taking a first period hooking penalty on Toews before his delay of game call in the second.
Penalties aside, Subban is putting up some impressive numbers.
His goal last night gives him 14 on the season. Fourteen goals as a rookie D-man puts Subban second in Habs history to Guy Lapointe who potted 15 in 1970-71. Subban now has 38 points, tying him for 28th among NHL defenseman.
What is interesting though, is that Subban only had 11 points (2G, 9A) over his first 34 games for a 0.32 points per game (PPG) average. Since January, however, P.K. has 27 points (12G, 15A) over 41 games for a 0.65 PPG.
Over 82 games, that averages out to 54 points which would put Subban in the top six among defenseman.
While Subban is young and still has a lot to learn, he is ready to be the Habs' No.1 D-man this spring and beyond.
The Habs top players showed up
They say in order to win on a consistent basis your best players have to be your best players on any given night.
While this has not always been the case for Montreal this season, last night the Habs' top players showed up in spades.
The Hawks controlled the first five minutes of the game before Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, flanked by Mathieu Darche, turned things around for Montreal.
Gomez and Gionta used their shiftiness and Darche simply went to the net. The result was the Habs' first scoring chances of the game and a shift in momentum. Next it was Michael Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn who carried that momentum and set up a few more scoring opportunities.
The top two lines played their best games in a long time and the result was a myriad of scoring opportunities for the Canadiens.
Cammalleri finished the night with five shots on net and if it wasn't for Crawford's brilliance, he would have had three or four goals.
With two games to go Jacques Martin has to be breathing a huge sigh of relief this morning. While Price is the number one reason the Habs are in the playoffs and the reason they won last night, the Canadiens need their offense to get going.
The Habs will go as far as Price can take them in the playoffs but if Cammalleri, Plekanec, Kostitsyn, Gomez and Gionta aren't scoring, Montreal won't get out of the first round.
Wake up, Jacques Martin!
Last night, the Habs were playing their best game in months until Kostitsyn took a bad tripping penalty on Toews at 7:42 of the second. The penalty killed a Habs man-advantage and handed the momentum over to the Hawks.
Chicago was down 1-0 at the time and was able to tie it up less than three minutes later. After that, the Hawks were flying as the Habs struggled to contain their speed and skill.
This utter domination went on for a good five or six minutes with Chicago coming dangerously close to scoring on several occasions. And while everyone online was screaming for Jacques Martin to call a timeout, the wise old veteran just stood there blinking.
Fortunately for Montreal they were able to weather the storm, largely due to Price's heroics.
That being said, I just don't understand Martin's resistance to using timeouts. You see other coaches doing it all the time and sometimes a well placed timeout can help get the game under control.
It's almost like Martin thinks you are only allowed to use a timeout with less than two minutes in the game.
Strange, very strange. But then again so is Martin.
The Hawks are ridiculously skilled
While Chicago lost the game and may not make the playoffs this year, there is no doubting the tremendous skill on their team.
Early in the game, the Hawks defensemen were forcing the play a little too much—perhaps they were nervous given the magnitude of the match.
They quickly settled things down, however, and it helped their forwards take control of the game. Once Chicago got their wheels going they simply bowled the Canadiens over for a good portion of the match.
Players like Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook bring varying mixes of speed, skill and size and Montreal had a hard time containing them.
Kane in particular made a ridiculous fake on Mathieu Darche, freeing himself from coverage before picking the corner on Price to tie the game at one.
There are maybe five or 10 players in the league with the skill to make that play.
Chicago has clearly been knocked down a few pegs since winning the cup last year. But with the solid core of incredibly skilled players and the sudden emergence of goaltender Cory Crawford, it won't be long before this team is back on top.
Standings and Next Game
The win moves the Habs record to 43-30-7 with 93 points in the standings and clinches a playoff spot. With two games left in their season all that is left to decide is final positioning.
Montreal has run out of racetrack to catch the teams in front of them, as both Tampa and Boston have 99 points.
Depending on what the teams in front and behind them do, Montreal could end up facing either Boston, Philadelphia, Washington or Pittsburgh in the first round.
Buffalo—who were in sixth place for about 10 minutes until Montreal pulled out the victory—are one point behind the Habs in seventh. Behind them are the Rangers with 91 points.
The Habs now embark on their final road trip of the season: in Ottawa Thursday before closing out the season in Toronto on Saturday.
It will be interesting to see how the team responds over the final two games. Will they sit back, secure in the knowledge that they are going to he playoffs no matter what? Or will they put together Herculean efforts like they did last night and enter the playoffs on a roll?
Tune in on Thursday to find out.
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/