Fourth Line Leads Habs to Victory

The winds of change were blowing in the city of Montreal the last few days, as a sputtering second line and weak defensive pairings led Coach Jacques Martin to shake things up at practice.

Then, as Tomas Plekanec was scratched after the pre-game skate due to flu-like symptoms, Martin juggled his lines further and had Andrei Kostitsyn riding shotgun with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, while Lars Eller was centering Michael Cammalleri and Travis Moen.

The result wasn’t pretty, as the Habs struggled to deal with the aggressive forecheck from a disorganized Sabres squad, but the Canadiens skated away with the victory thanks to outstanding goaltending from Carey Price and three goals from the Canadiens fourth line.

Despite outshooting the Habs 16-10 in the first period, the Sabres looked will a team in disarray as they demonstrated very little cohesion between their forwards and their defense.

The Habs absolutely needed someone to step up and the fourth line of Benoit Pouliot, Mathieu Darche, and Jeff Halpern answered the bell. That trio played their best game of the season scoring all three goals—the first two immediately after the Sabres had taken 1-0 and 2-1 leads—and delivering the victory in the process.

Final score: Habs 3 – Sabres 2

Habs’ scorers: Jeff Halpern (4), Benoit Pouliot (3, 4)
Sabres’ scorers: Mike Grier (1), Jordan Leopold (4)

Three stars: 1. Benoit Pouliot, 2. Mike Grier, 3. Andrei Markov

Game Notes

1. Price continues his stupendous play.

From the drop of the puck to the closing siren, Price was as steady as a surgeon, making save after brilliant save to keep his team in this one early.

In particular, Price made several saves from in close before the game was ten minutes old, to keep the score tied 0-0. Those saves came as the Sabres were carrying all of the momentum—built off of two power plays—and were making things difficult for the Habs with their strength down low.

Those were the kinds of saves that Price wasn’t making last season and which he is now making game in and game out. We have now come to expect solid play from him rather than expecting him to let in a weak goal, only 13 games into the season.

Price’s record now stands at 7-4-1 after 12 games and, as Dave Stubbs of the Gazette reminds us on Twitter, that was the same record Price had through 12 games in his rookie season. The difference, I would say, is that Price looks much more grounded now than he did in 2007-08.

How quickly things change!

Gomez is quickly becoming an unmitigated disaster.

Gomez started the game with a little more jump than the last few games, but the end result was more of the same. He continues to make poor decisions with the puck and twice tried weak backhand passes that were picked off rather than dumping the puck into the corner.

I am not sure what his aversion is to dumping the puck in and letting his linemates retrieve it, but he should know that when you don’t have a play you have to either get it back to point or you throw it in the corner.

Gomez did neither and instead turned the puck over several times, like he has done all season long.

He knows better than that and the question is why is he not doing it?

On the play that led to the Sabres’ first goal, Gomez got the puck all alone at the Sabres blueline and, with his skating speed, should have out-skated Sabres’ defenseman, Jordan Leopold, for a breakaway and at least got a shot on net.

Instead he hesitated.

Rather than trying to beat the Sabres’ defender with speed Gomez waited for Brain Gionta and passed him the puck. Gionta also hesitated, was unable to get a shot on net, and turned the puck over in the process. This led to a 3-on-1 going back the other way and a 1-0 Buffalo lead.

Once Gomez saw that the play was lost, he floated for a good five seconds rather than retreating to a defensive position in order to support his defenseman—Jaroslav Spacek. The end result was that Mike Grier was left all alone to skate in on Price and put the puck past him. That was Gomez’s man and he didn’t have the presence of mind to cover him.

Considering that RDS’s Renaud Lavoie reported that Gomez and Coach Martin had a no-holds barred, face-to-face meeting before the game, you would have expected Gomez to put forth his best effort of the season. Instead, he played one of his worst games.

Gomez is in a really bad place right now and because of his contract, so are the Habs.

The Habs’ fourth line is their best and most consistent right now.

Not only did they score all three goals last night, but each goal came just after the Sabres had taken the lead. The first goal was scored about a minute and a half after Buffalo made it 1-0, and the second goal was scored 46 seconds after they made it 2-1.

Your can’t get much more timely scoring than that!

The numbers tell the tale for the trio of Jeff Halpern, Mathieu Darche, and Pouliot: 18:01, 12:21, and 11:32 of ice time respectively, seven points between them (three goals, four assists), five shots on goal, and a collective plus-9 rating.

Pouliot, in particular, played like the player who scored 15 goals over 39 games in a Canadiens uniform last season. He looked relax, calm, and confident playing with little to no pressure on the fourth line.

Hey, if that’s what it takes, then maybe Gomez should do a stint in the bottom-six too!

Pouliot’s linemates also continue to impress as Halpern’s three points give him ten (four goals, six assists) for the season, tying him for first place in scoring with Plekanec and Kostitsyn. He also leads all regular Habs centers with a 55.94 faceoff win percentage and is tied with Cammalleri with a plus-7 rating, all for just 600K per season.

As for Darche, he has turned himself into a key bottom-six player with his hard work and determination. The feeling out of camp was that people respected Darche’s work ethic but felt that Ryan White was a much better fit for the team as he was stronger, bigger, faster, more skilled, and willing to drop the gloves.

While all of that is true, Darche is playing some of the best, smartest hockey of his career right now. If he keeps it up he will be in the Habs lineup all season as he is simply making himself indispensable.

The defensive pairings and forward lines were all mixed up.

Hal Gill was paired with P.K. Subban, which was a good combo because P.K. was able to take more chances and focus more on the offensive side of things. Despite his considerable offensive prowess, Subban continues to be the Canadiens’ best defenseman, bar none.

This is by no means meant as disrespect to Andrei Markov as he is still trying to find his rhythm. But Subban is making excellent passes, hits, defensive plays, and even chipping in offensively. Very quietly, he has racked up six assist and a plus-6 rating.

Markov looked better tonight but still needs a few games to get into a groove. He and Gorges formed an excellent pairing for the Habs that should only get better once Markov is up to par.

The problem on the back-end, however, was that the Habs lacked the ability to clear players from in front of the net and this allowed the Sabres to cause havoc for Price all night. It is at times like that when you have to scratch your head and wonder why Ryan O’Byrne is sitting in the press box.

Up front, Cammalleri, Eller and Moen played like the patchwork line that they are. There wasn’t a lot of chemistry on that line and hopefully, if Plekanec is back in the lineup tomorrow, we will get a look at what Plekanec, Eller and Cammalleri can do together.

Kostitsyn did not look out of place playing with Gomez and Gionta, as he fired his hard, heavy shot at the net several times. The problem with that line seems to be that Gionta and Gomez are trying to do too much and are looking for the perfect play all the time.

The Canadiens’ power play—which went 0-for-3—is currently suffering from the same affliction.

The power play is REALLY bad.

No, seriously, it’s really, really bad. Horrible. Putrid.

The Canadiens looked like a bunch of house-leaguers out there on the PP, shooting the puck at the opposition’s shins, missing the net, bad/missed passes, and an inability to keep the puck in the opposition’s zone.

Missing the net with their shots is a big problem that extends beyond the power play as their main snipers, Cammalleri and Gionta, can’t seem to hit the net. Your chances of scoring goals are seriously reduced if you can’t get the puck on net, but they should already know that. Both of those players are goal scorers and you would think that things are sure to unblock at some point. Until they do, however, it is asking too much for the fourth line to score three goals every night.

As such, if the Habs’ snipers can’t start sniping and their power play can’t start scoring, they are going to be in for a world of hurt very soon as the team’s shortcomings are sure to catch up with them in the long run.

Standings and Next Game

The win gives the Canadiens a 8-4-1 record and 17 points in the standings, good enough for first place in the Northeast division.

The Habs flew back to Montreal right after the game to take on the Ottawa Senators at the Bell Centre tonight.

Considering that Plekanec started feeling ill yesterday, chances are he will be out of the lineup again tonight. If that is the case, the Habs better hope for a repeat from the fourth line or a wake up from the top-six otherwise things could get ugly, fast against a Senators team that has won two in a row. The puck drops at 7:05 pm-ish.

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