Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the first place Montreal Canadiens.
With their win last night in Uniondale, the Habs are now officially the hottest team in the league with a 7-2-1 record and 15 points in the standings.
While yesterday’s game against the New York Islanders—the second of a home-and-home—was not as well played by the Habs, they still managed to pull out the win in a game that was much tighter than Wednesday’s night tilt in Montreal. The ice in Uniondale wasn’t very good and, at times, it looked more like keystone cops than hockey as pucks were bouncing and players were falling all over the place.
Despite the terrible conditions the Canadiens were the early aggressors in this game, taking a 9-2 shot advantage just 10:00 into the contest. Ultimately, the Isles made adjustment, gave up fewer odd-man rushes, and ended up outshooting the Canadiens 31-26 on the night. The Habs did a good job, however, of keeping the majority of the shots to the outside and cleared any rebounds, meaning that Alex Auld didn’t have to make a ton of heart-stopping saves. But when he was called upon he was ready.
In addition to outshooting the Canadiens, the Isles outhit them 27-22 but lost 34 of 57 faceoffs due to the strong work from Plekanec and Jeff Halpern. The Isles took every opportunity to drive to the net and make contact with Auld, who was playing his first game of the season. This tactic tended to draw a lot of post-whistle melees and scrums in the Habs’ zone. Despite the extra attention, Auld remained calm and collected and picked up his first win of the season in the process.
Habs’ scorers: Tomas Plekanec (5), Benoit Pouliot (2), Travis Moen (2)
Isles’ Scorers: Matt Martin (1)
Three stars: 1. Alex Auld, 2. Matt Martin, 3. Benoit Pouliot
He’s big, he’s bald, he’s Alex Auld
OK, I’m only using that line—which I did not invent—this one time. But seriously, what a game by Auld and what more can you ask for from your backup goaltender?
After sitting on the bench and watching Carey Price carry—no pun intended—the Habs to a 6-2-1 record over their first nine games, Auld took the net in the grudge match against a revenge-seeking Islanders squad.
With six power plays on the night including a 5-on-3, the Islanders held the momentum for large stretches of the game, but Auld was equal to the task as he stopped 30 of 31 shots for a scintillating .968 save percentage. Auld kept the score tied at one long enough for the Canadiens to get back into it and score the eventual game-winner in the second.
None of Auld’s saves was more key than the one he made on a shorthanded Matt Moulson breakaway when the score was still 1-0 for Montreal. That was one of those “key saves at a key time” and exactly what you need your goaltenders to do in order for your team to remain competitive.
Auld, like Price, is a big goaltender and he looked as much in the net, standing square to the shooters and giving them very little to shoot at. His rebound control was good too, either swallowing up the pucks or deflecting them out of harm’s way. When he did pop a puck out he was able to make the second save and his defense did the rest of the work clearing the rebounds.
With all of the question marks surrounding his potential play last night, Auld came out and delivered exactly the type of game you want from your backup, giving the Habs a chance to win and continuing their momentum. And it’s a good thing too, because the Habs will need a good 15-20 games out of him this season for Price to be ready for the playoffs.
Habs defense was targeted for physical punishment
Usually P.K. Subban gets most of the attention from the opposition, at least over the first nine games of the season. But last night the Isles shone the spotlight on Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek and hit both players as often as they could.
The result was that when Spacek wasn’t making bad passes and turning the puck over, he was usually on his butt.
For his part, Gill also took a lot of hits but he responded by playing one of his stronger defensive games of the season. In addition, he stood up for Andrei Kostitsyn late in the second period, by fighting Matt Martin after he got a little too physical with the Habs sniper.
Gill, a consummate leader, took exception and when to town on Martin. It was more of a wrestling match than a fight, but hey, at least Gill stood up for his teammate.
That fight was an example of the “team toughness” that Jacques Martin is always talking about and considering the Habs lack of a heavy weight, it will continue to be an important factor going forward.
The plumbers continue to get the job done
Is it me, or does the Habs bottom-six look even better since Lars Eller was switched to the third line center position?
The combination of Eller, Maxim Lapierre, and Tom Pyatt makes for a speedy, forechecking line that should start contributing on the scoresheet once they are a little more familiar with each other. Further down the roster, the line of Halpern, Pouliot, and Mathieu Darche caused problems for the Isles defenders almost every time they were on the ice. Moreover, their determined play lead to the game winning goal by Pouliot.
On the play, Subban dumped the puck up the ice to Halpern who had Darche on his wing and Pouliot trailing in what became a 3-on-2. Halpern used Darche as a decoy and then dropped the puck to Pouliot in the slot who rifled a wrister top shelf past Dwayne Roloson for the game winner. That was the type of goal that Pouliot absolutely must score on a regular basis if he wants to keep playing on this team.
While I’d still prefer to see Pouliot playing on Eller’s wing on the third line, there is no questioning the chemistry that is starting to form in the bottom-six. This chemistry cannot be understated since one of the biggest problems the Canadiens had last season was that they rarely got scoring from their bottom-six.
With the parity in this league, a team must be able to rely on multiple lines to contribute offense. Since the Scott Gomez line is still firing blanks, it’s a good thing the plumbers are getting it done.
Gomez line finally scored a goal!
Jacques Martin did a lot of winger shuffling on the Gomez-Gionta line again last night, but ultimately had Travis Moen playing with the duo for most of the night. The result was the insurance marker with less than two minutes to play in the game.
On the play, Brian Gionta just winged the puck towards the net and it was deflected by Moen over a kneeling Roloson for his second goal of the year.
Gomez, who wasn’t really involved in the play, continues to look like an island out there. He is doing a good job of skating the puck out of the Canadiens’ zone but seems to panic at the offensive blueline and either miss a low-percentage passing attempt, or turn the puck over to the opposing team. Given how much Gomez’s game is based on clean, tape-to-tape passes, it is surprising to see his passes consistently in his winger’s skates or just out of their reach.
It’s a good thing the Habs’ top line and bottom-six continue to contribute, because Gomez is clearly the weak link on a sputter second line. Whatever funk he is in, he has to figure it out quickly because, despite their early success, the Habs need two consistent scoring lines if they want to remain at the top of the heap.
Gomez is the playmaker on that line and if he is always missing his passes, it is very difficult for the trio to get anything going.
Special teams ruled the day.
It’s pretty simple: the Canadiens were 1-for-2 on the power play, and killed all six of their penalties.
Gill and Josh Gorges had a lot to do with the penalty kill being so successful as they played 3:39 and 5:28 of short-handed time respectively. As was the case during the playoffs, those two are still the Canadiens top defensive penalty-killing unit. That being said, the trio of Gorges, Plekanec, and Roman Hamrlik did a good job of killing off an early 5-on-3 where the Islanders really didn’t get any quality scoring chances.
On the other hand, the Habs power play goal was the result of a quick shot by Michael Cammalleri. The puck caromed off of Roloson and right to Plekanec, who’s quick stick allowed him put the puck in the net. The goal was scored only 18 seconds into the power play—and was Plekanec’s third goal in his last three games—and it was nice to see the Canadiens trying to create something off of a shot rather than looking for the perfect pass.
With their second power play goal in the last three games, maybe the Habs are starting to defrost their PP just in time for Andrei Markov’s return to the lineup tonight.
Standings and Next Game
The win gives the Canadiens 15 point in the standings and first place in the Northeast division and overall in the league. It’s still too early in the season to start planning the parade route and playing teams like Vancouver, L.A., and Philly this month will go a long way to determining whether these Canadiens are the real deal or not. But so far, winning seven out of ten games with an impotent power play, without the services of your number one defensemen, and without a second scoring line is more than anyone would have expected.
There’s no rest for the wicked as the Habs are back in Montreal to take on the Florida Panthers tonight at the Bell Center. The game also marks the long awaited return of Markov to the lineup.