The mood surrounding the Montreal Canadiens practice yesterday was light following their well earned win against the tenacious Phoenix Coyotes on Monday.
Even Jacques Martin, normally known for his stoic, monotone ways, was cracking jokes with the media while sporting an ear-to-ear grin.
And why not?
His team is playing well despite some egregiously glaring holes in their play. This brings to mind the old sports adage that you are never as good as you seem when you are winning and never as bad when you are losing.
Despite a 5-2-1 record and a share of first overall in the Northeast Division, the Canadiens have a few problems that need fixing as they prepare to take on the surprising New York Islanders at the Bell Centre tonight. The Isles, with a 4-2-2 record, have ten points and are one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Atlantic Division.
While it is still very early in the season, a match-up against a conference rival is always important whether in October or in March.
On offense, the Canadiens have been receive some fine play from the likes of Andrei Kostitsyn (5 G, 3A, 8P), Michael Cammalleri (3-3-6), and Tomas Plekanec (3-4-7) who is clearly the offensive catalyst for the Habs.
Their second line, however, has been flatlined as Scott Gomez (1-1-2) and Brian Gionta (1-1-2) have struggled to get going. Their difficulties are compounded by the carousel of players who have played on their wing—Benoit Pouliot, Tom Pyatt, Travis Moen, Mathieu Darche—in an attempt to find chemistry.
While the Habs’ penalty kill has been excellent so far—three goals allowed on 32 chances—their power play has left much to be desired—2-for-29, 6.9% efficiency—and is clearly that should benefit from the return of Andrei Markov this weekend.
Defensive Strengths and Weaknesses
On the backend, Jaroslav Spacek has been struggling while his partner, Roman Hamrlik, has been a steadying influence playing a team high 24:55 Monday night against Phoenix.
Youngster P.K. Subban seems to be settling into a groove after an up and down pre-season and first few games of the regular season. He seems to have taken everyone’s advice and simplified his game and the result is that he is the Canadiens best defenseman right now.
When will we see Alex Auld?
Montreal wouldn’t be Montreal without some discussion of the goaltenders, and, despite Carey Price’s brilliant performance so far this season—five wins, 2.23 GAA, .918 save percentage—a lot of the talk yesterday was about backup goaltender Alex Auld and when he will play his first game of the season.
In my mind, the only reason potential reason to start Auld is because you don’t want him to get too rusty sitting on the sidelines. The idea is that he should play every once in a while, regardless of how well Price is playing, so that he stays sharp. Given that the Canadiens are playing four games in six nights this week, there’s a very good possibility that Auld could get his first start in Long Island on Friday.
While I understand the logic of playing Auld, Price is on fire right now and unless he tells the coaches that he is tired or they have some reason to believe he needs rest, I would keep playing him. Price is only 23 and tonight is only the Habs’ ninth game into the season, so there is no fatigue factor going on right now. Price is in a groove right now so why not keep him there?
What to do with Lars Eller?
Eller played a few shifts with some talented wingers, for a change, and the result was the winning goal in overtime. While one game does not make a season, there is no denying that Eller’s considerable talents seem to be wasted on the wing—as he is a playmaker—and on the fourth line.
I said in my post-game analysis, that I would either try him between Gionta and Pouliot, or slot him as the third line center between Lapierre and Pouliot, and see what happens. That being said, all indications are that Martin is going with the same lineup that won Monday night, meaning that Eller will start on the fourth line. Don’t be surprised, however, if we see him shifted up a line or two at certain points in the game, depending on how the game plays out.