The Canadiens went into last night's game against the Los Angeles Kings looking to rebound from an unimpressive outing two nights earlier against the Philadelphia Flyers, and they did just that in a convincing 4-1 victory over the visiting Kings. Goals from Andrei Kostitsyn, Michael Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec, and Lars Eller, along with Carey Price's 24-save performance, gave the Canadiens their 14th win of the season, as well as peace of mind that the Flyer's game was nothing more than an off night. It was also another step towards asserting the Habs as not only a good team, but a dominant, clear-cut contender in the East. The Kings may have come into last night's contest as losers of four out of their last five, but they are currently sitting in 6th in the Western Conference. As middle-of-the-pack as that may seem, the West tends to be much more competitive than the East; evidenced by the fact that they are two points behind Detroit for first place in the conference and the Central Division. The point is, the Kings aren't pushovers-they are stacked with young talent, headlined by Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Wayne Simmonds, Jack Johnson, Jonathan Bernier, and of course superstar Drew Doughty. Despite all the firepower, the Kings only managed one goal and were completely snuffed out offensively in another solid Markov-less effort by the defense, spearheaded once again by the old Czechs Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek.
Another high point in this one was Lars Eller FINALLY potting his first Habs goal, a moment that no doubt lifted the weight of the world off his shoulders. You could see the wave of relief crashing over him in his celebration, and he could not wipe the grin off his face on the bench while being congratulated by teammates and coaches. Overall, another good win for the Habs, who slowly but surely are erasing all doubts that people had coming into the season.
We are now 22 games into the season, meaning that we're officially past the quarter mark. In a word, the Habs have been surprising; so surprising that the "experts" who were trying to convince people that the Habs were going to suck and picking them to finish in the cellar of the Eastern Conference during the offseason are now trying to convince people that the Habs are a fluke, just a giant farce that comes with a hot start while the true elite are busy working out the kinks. For all we know, the Habs could have a major meltdown halfway through the year and those same pundits will be right. But for now, the Habs sit comfortably in third place in the Eastern Conference, as well as atop the Northeast Division, with the only real competition being present in the form of the Boston Bruins. So before we continue following our heroes long, arduous road to the playoffs, let's take a second to look back at what's happened so far this year.
It began a little over a month ago, an unimpressive loss to the Leafs in which Carey Price haters began to ruffle the feathers once again, crying for their saviour Halak after only 60 minutes of hockey. Price bounced right back with a last-minute-come-from-behind victory against Pittsburgh two nights later. The Habs then lost a heart-breaker to the Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lighting, but rebounded with solid back-to-back efforts in Buffalo and at home to Ottawa, the Ottawa game standing out as the Habs came back from down 3-1 in that contest. After a long lay off, the Habs tossed up a stinker against the hapless Devils, but bounced back nicely with Ottawa, Phoenix, and the Islanders twice in a home and home series spread over three nights. The streak ended with a 3-1 setback against Florida, followed by another no-show in Columbus, which began to sprout doubts about the Habs early successes. They responded with a 3-2 win in Buffalo, followed by a 3-2 loss to Ottawa the following night, a game in which the Habs looked tired but also allowed Brian Gionta to rediscover his scoring touch; this parlayed into a another four game win streak, by far the most impressive stretch of this young campaign: a 2-0 win against Vancouver, 3-1 win against Boston, 7-2 beatdown of Carolina, and another goose egg for the opposition in a 3-0 victory against the Flyers. It was during this week where Carey Price sent a clear message to not only the rest of the league, but to those who have constantly hated on and belittled him over the past three years. The Flyers avenged the loss Monday night, and then finally last night's game against the Kings rounded out the first part of the 2010-2011 season.
Its safe to say the Habs have exceeded all expectations thus far this year. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this early success is the fact that the Habs' pillar on defense, Andrei Markov, has been absent for all but seven games this year, after re-injuring his already fragile right knee against Carolina at a moment when the game was already out of reach. Also impressive is the Habs success in spite of a sporadic and largely ineffective powerplay and routinely unimpressive and inefficient performances by 8 million dollar man Scott Gomez. It's not the cap hit that's the issue, its that Gomez isn't even playing well enough to warrant 1/8 off that salary. Jeff Halpern has 13 points in 22 games playing less minutes, usually against the other teams top lines, with less powerplay time and more shorthanded minutes, while Gomez has but six point to show for his efforts thus far this season, despite having ALL of the Habs top talent line up with him throughout the first part of the year. Something has got to give, so Gomez has either got to start producing or Gomez has got to go; off the second line anyways, because no one is going to pull a Gainey and pick up that ridiculous contract. At some point Jacques Martin is going to run out of patience and give Halpern or youngster Lars Eller a chance to take that second line center spot.
Speaking of Jacques Martin, talk about a coach getting the most out of his players! So much for firing him and keeping Guy Boucher...Martin has been pushing all the right buttons, and he's getting top-notch results from his team. He may not be flamboyant or fiery, but his knowledge, experience and awareness behind the bench are much greater assets to a team than a coach who simply yells to have his raging voice heard in an effort to scare his players into playing better. A good example of Martin's impact came just this week, when he was clearly unhappy over the collapse in Philadelphia; he didn't call his team out or point fingers at anyone, but he made it clear that a better effort was necessary, and made his players pay the price by putting them through a bag skate and an intense practise the next day. The following night, the Habs responded nicely with a dominating 4-1 win against L.A. Clearly Martin has his player's attention and trust;they are focuses, believing in the system, and putting it out all out there almost every night, and its leading to good results.
Last but not least, how can we not talk about the revelation that is Carey Price? Sure, the revelation that was supposed to come and practically drag the franchise to another Stanley Cup three years ago, but better late than never, right? Price has arrived and he's doing it in style; 13 wins (1st overall), .933 save percentage (5th overall), 2.00 GAA (5th overall), and 4 shutouts (1st overall). Arguably the best all-around numbers in the league, and fans are rewarding him for it-he's sitting in first place with over 71,000 votes in the All-Star voting. Some expected Price to falter. Some expected him to fail miserably. Some expected him to do OK, but nothing great. Some expected him to be solid overall...but NOBODY saw this coming. Price has been downright dominant. He's done everything an elite starting goalie is expected to do; steal a few games, keep the team in a few games, make the key, big saves, and on the odd night, just don't let in more than the other guy. Price has yet to allow more than 3 goals in regulation time, and the most he's allowed all year in one game is 4, in an overtime loss against Tampa in the third game of the year. If Price keeps this up, the long wait for the Price to be right will have finally come to a happy end, one with a very bright future.
The Golden Boy has finally arrived. Bob Gainey and Pierre Gauthier can finally rest easy.
I figured since most people either grade or rate the players individually with a letter or number grade, or with a tag of some sort, I decided to be creative with it and give each player a little piece of advice that I would give them if I were Jacques Martin. Assuming I would call them each into my office, I would tell each player what they need to do to keep playing well, to pick it up a bit, or to get off their asses and get with the program:
Dustin Boyd: Keep patient kid, you're chance will come-but when it comes, don't waste your chance, seize it and don't let go.
Michael Cammalleri: Put the puck on net, your doing well but we know you can do even better. We need consistency from you, you're a pure sniper, so do what you do best; shoot and score.
Mathieu Darche: Not one bad thing to say to you. Keep working your tail off, everytime your in the lineup all you do is work, work, and produce. Keep it up.
Lars Eller: We're going to keep bringing you along slowly, but be ready when called upon-we need more production and if you prove yourself you'll get a legitimate shot on the top two lines. Keep up the effort.
Brian Gionta: You're my leader and you haven't disappointed one bit. You never take a shift off, you do and say all the right things, and you're hitting the score sheet with decent regularity. Don't let up, we need you, captain.
Scott Gomez: You need to get your s**t together my friend, or the media will tear your head off. You have it in you, just bust your ass out there and stop gripping the stick so tight. Make good passes and make the guys around you better-I don't 50 goals out of you for us to be successful, I need 50 assists.
Jeff Halpern: You're superhuman, and I'm so glad Pierre signed you. You're the unsung hero of this squad and your contributions have not gone unnoticed...you're leadership and determination are going to be huge come playoff time. Don't change a thing.
Andrei Kostitsyn: THIS is the real Andrei. This is the Andrei I like. Shoot whenever you get a chance, that wrister can go in from anywhere on the ice. Keep motoring and don't let up or get lazy. Throw that big body around, keep scoring and show everyone that you were a great pick in a deep 2003 draft.
Maxim Lapierre: Mon ami, keep rubbing opponents the wrong way. Get under their skin and piss them off. Don't listen to what they say or think, just keep driving them nuts. I need Mad Max, not Slack Max. Go all out and hit people, staple them to the wall. And don't be afraid to get in front and bag some garbage goals.
Travis Moen: We need to see more physicality out of you, you're doing a solid job but we need you to intimidate. You a tough guy who can play; take advantage of that, filling that role will pay dividends for the team in the long run.
Tomas Plekanec: You're top notch elite, you're doing it all. Don't let up, just keep doing your thing.
Benoit Pouliot: I still think you should be on my second line, but I'll digress for now as you've been productive on the third line. Keep hitting and shooting, you're doing a good job;but at the end of the day you have the skills to be top-six. If you slip up, I have Max Pacioretty and Ryan White itching to be up here. So don't get to comfortable, keep playing a good strong game.
Tom Pyatt: You're doing all the little things, but the hands of stone worry me. I need a few goals from you, something to set you apart from a guy in the press box or a guy in the minors, or else it'll be constant in-and-out of the lineup for you.
Hal Gill: Keep leading by example and shutting down the opposition. The less I hear you're name being brought up, the better-it means your doing your job right.
Josh Gorges: You keep proving you're the ultimate warrior. Keep up the hard work, limit chances and chip in on the powerplay-we're going to rely heavily on you without Markov. You've been up to the task so far, keep it going.
Roman Hamrlik: I need you to be at your best every night without Markov. I know its harder at your age, but I trust you. You still have it, old man, don't let up. You're solid every night and you rarely make mistakes. We'd be screwed without you.
Alexandre Picard: Here's your chance, seize it. You can prove to everyone that you're an everyday player, or you can falter and continue being a borderline spare part. Your choice. So far, so good. Don't let up.
Jaroslav Spacek: It took you awhile to find your game, but your back to form and that's a relief. I came close to sitting you, and if you start slipping again I won't hesitate to do it again-Yannick Weber isn't up here just to eat hot-dogs in the press box.
P.K Subban: So far so good rookie, keep playing solid hockey-defense comes first; and with good defense comes offensive chances. Take chances when your sure you can, and don't be careless. Be yourself out there, be reign it in and don't try pushing the envelope-you're still young and have a lot to learn. But you've done a great job so far, keep up the solid effort. Without Markov, you're going to be relied on to move to puck up, create offense, and man the powerplay. Are you up to it? Damn right you are.
Yannick Weber: Time's running out for you young man. You have a good chance to prove your worth here, take advantage of it and we'll be more comfortable keeping you up here full-time next year as opposed to spending money on an older free-agent. It's in your hands.
Andrei Markov: Damn, it just keeps getting worse for you doesn't it? Get that knee healed up and then we'll talk.
Carey Price: What needs to be said...you're awesome. I'd start you every game if I could. Don't let up, you're doing great. Without you, we're not where we stand today. Great job.
Alex Auld: Can't base much on one game can me...so you're starting tomorrow night in Atlanta. Keep the ball rolling, that's what you're getting paid for. Prove to me that I have two goalies to rely on.
With that, we move into the next chunk of the season, and important one as this is the lead up to the eventual second half playoff push. Let's see what these Habs are truly made of.