So how about those Habs?
Two nights after shutting out the Ottawa Senators in Ottawa, the Canadiens were back at home to take on the speedy, Shane Doan-less, Phoenix Coyotes in what was an incredibly speedy and entertaining game. These two teams are very evenly matched and it showed in a back and forth, high-paced game that seemed more like a tennis match at times, than a hockey game.
How evenly matched are these teams, you might ask? Well, each team had 29 shots on goal, they both went 1-for-5 on the power play, each team had ten penalty minutes, and both won 23 faceoffs. Moreover, both teams showcased tremendous speed and a strong five-man defensive unit. The cherry on the sundae, however, was the goaltenders. Both Ilya Bryzgalov and Carey Price put on goaltending clinics as they used their huge frames and excellent mobility to stop a myriad of quality scoring chances.
The Coyotes opened the scoring in the second period on a Kyle Turris goal, but the Habs stormed back with two of their own—including their second power play tally of the season.
The Coyotes tied the score on the PP early in the third period which only cranked up the intensity. The final twenty minutes of regulation seemed more like a sudden-death, seventh game overtime than the seventh game of the season, with both teams pressing for the win. It wasn’t to be, however, until Andrei Kostitsyn potted his fifth goal of the season off of a Lars Eller deflection, to seal the deal at 1:25 of overtime.
Final score: Habs 3 – Coyotes 2 (OT)
Habs’ scorers: Tomas Plekanec (3), Michael Cammalleri (3), Andrei Kostitsyn (5)
Coyotes’ scorers: Kyle Turris (3), Derek Morris (1)
Three Stars: 1. Kostitsyn 2. Cammalleri 3. Plekanec
Kostitsyn is a man possessed.
I usually start my analyses with the goaltender, and while Price has been an undeniable star through eight games, the early season story of the Canadiens has got to be the play of AK46.
With his fifth goal of the season—his second game-winner in as many games—Kostitsyn now leads the Canadiens in points with eight in eight games (five goals, three assists) and a plus-five rating. That is quite a turn around for a player who slumped to career lows last season.
While Andrei is using his considerable size and incredible shot to good effect, there are two other factors that are even more important.
First, his positioning is excellent. Looking at the majority of his goals so far, AK46 is always in the right spot to pick up the rebound. On the game-winning goal last night, Kostitsyn was at the left side of the net just as the Eller deflection came to him and he had an easy goal into the empty net.
The other night, he scored a goal off of a Plekanec setup and then another off of a Cammalleri setup where he was in the prime scoring position and able to pot the rebound. That is the kind of positioning that he needs if he is going to keep scoring in this league on a regular basis.
The second thing that Andrei is doing well is smiling. Andrei is having fun on the ice and that is something that we haven’t seen from him in almost three seasons. When named the first star of the game last night, Andrei skated around the ice with a handful of pucks and tossed them to his adoring fans in the crowd. That is the second time he has been named the first star and the second time he has done that.
It is still early in the season, but if he keeps playing like this, AK46 is on a collision course with a 30-plus goal season.
Price is in the zone.
Making save after save, looking calm and confident in the net, and easily able to shake off a goal, Price looks like he is becomming the rock that the Canadiens need him to be. Last night was his eighth consecutive start of the season. One more start and he will tie his nine-straight from last year.
At some point, Alex Auld will have to get some time in the net, but the way Price is playing there is little motivation to make a change in that department.
Habs’ PP continues to sputter despite their goal.
Going 1-for-5 on the night and 1-for-24 on the season (4.2%), the Habs are trying to be too fancy on the PP. Watching them last night, you could see them trying low percentage passes and shots. They seemed like they were looking for the perfect, picturesque goal instead of trying to get an ugly one.
When your PP is not working you have to simplify, not complicate things: Shots from the point, create traffic in front, and try for a deflection or a rebound. It’s not rocket science.
The Canadiens, as a team, need to take a page out of Josh Gorges book. Gorges, who is not known for his offensive abilities, has been playing the point on the PP and all he does is shoot the puck at the net. Sure, he doesn’t have the hardest shot in the world, but you don’t need to in order to be effective. All you have to do is hit the net and that is what Gorges has been doing.
Word yesterday was that Andrei Markov could be back as early as Friday but more likely Saturday. His presence is well needed on the power play and hopefully he can kick-start things for the Habs in that department.
The second line are still firing blanks.
Let me start by asking, why in the world Tom Pyatt is still playing on the second line? I understand that Jacques Martin is trying to mix things up in an effort to get Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez going, but Pyatt is not the answer.
Don’t get me wrong because I like Pyatt. He is fast, tenacious, and works his butt off every shift. The problem is that he does have an offensive touch and this was never more clear than when he and Gionta had a 2-on-1 break in the second period, just after Yotes’ first goal.
On the play, the puck was rolling a little bit, but Pyatt ultimately didn’t have the hand-eye coordination to put it into the empty net. It was a play where a player with softer hands would have scored. Dustin Boyd, Maxim Lapierre, Benoit Pouliot or even Eller would have potted that one.
So why then does Martin keep putting Pyatt and Travis Moen on the second line?
The Canadiens are winning, which is a good thing, but they can’t keep that up for 82 games if they only have one line that is scoring. Right now, Gomez seems to be the weak link on that line. Gionta, however, is working hard and leads all player with 32 shots on goal. The problem is that he is starting to get frustrated and is taking low-percentage shots in an attempt to get something going.
It is looking more and more like Martin needs to separate that duo and put Gionta on a line with Eller.
Martin switches things up on checking lines
Speaking of Eller, Martin finally gave him a shot with some talented wingers last night and it resulted in the winning goal.
When the game was tied 2-2 late in the third period, Martin shortened his bench. The result was a line of Eller, Lapierre, and Moen and they looked good together for the few shifts they played. The other change Martin made was to put Pouliot back on the Gomez-Gionta line and they too looked to have some spark. But the most beautiful combo was seeing Kostitsyn skate on Lars Eller’s wing at 4-on-4 in overtime.
Eller is a strong, fast, talented play maker and he needs offensive wingers in order to be truly effective. On the winning goal, Eller dug the puck back to the point then went to the net. The Gorges shot from the point was deflected by Eller—who had drawn the opposing defender, leaving the left side of the net open—to a waiting Kostitsyn who fired the puck into the empty net.
It is clear that Eller is being wasted on the third line wing or fourth line center role and, I’ve been saying for a while, that if he is only playing ten minutes a game on the fourth line that his development would be better served in Hamilton. Last night, Eller finally got to play with some talented wingers for a few shifts and the result was the winning goal.
Gomez’s play so far dictates that he should not be playing in the top-six. Moreover, the Canadiens coaching staff should try to have Gionta and Pouliot on Eller’s wing. It surely can’t be worse than what they are getting so far.
Standings and Next Game
The Canadiens have the day off before taking on the New York Islanders tomorrow night at the Bell Centre. The game is the first of a home-and-away series that concludes Friday in Long Island.
After last night’s win, the Habs are first place in their division with 11 points in eight games, first overall in the league with a 92.6% penalty kill, and all of this without their No.1 defenseman, a league-worst power play (4.2%), and a sputtering second line.
Now, I can’t state those facts without also stating the obvious: it’s still early. Too early in fact to start getting overly excited about anything.
The true character of a hockey team tends to be more evident closer to the 20-30 game mark, so anything can happen from here to there. But, for now, Habs fans should feel good about the early success so far in the 2010-11 season.