The Atlanta Thrashers came out hard and played a strong game, pushing the Habs to the limit, but in the end, a lucky goal from Mike Ribeiro secured a third consecutive victory, and sixth in seven games. It turned out to be four points in two nights for the Canadiens, and propelled them to fifth in the East, albeit with more games played.
The opening twenty was a fairly dull affair with both teams playing conservative mostly defensive hockey and for a time, fans couldn’t be blamed if they thought the Habs were playing tired and extremely carefully. In fact, the Thrashers came out hard and pressed the Canadiens for the first moments of the game before tucking to a careful defensive shell and it was just good goaltending from Jose Theodore which kept them in the match.
Fortunately, in the second, a defensive error from Atlanta left Pierre Dagenais alone in front of the Thrash goal for a slick pass from leading scorer Ribeiro. Dagenais’ one-time shot from the slot beat Byron Dafoe and put the Habs in the drivers seat.
After that, the game seemed to once again settle into a comfortable rhythm where virtually nothing happened. The Habs dropped nicely into a defensive system, one that they’d worked on all year under coach Claude Julien, and in which they now seem far more comfortable. Except for a couple of chances here and there, the rest of the second was a quiet affair.
The third, however, turned into an offensive affair with chances at both ends and incredible stops by two experienced goaltenders. It was a wide open period, and one that Julien will be reminding his troops that they can ill afford against other teams.
At 8:36 of the final frame, Randy Robitaille finally evened the game up with a blast from the point which eluded Theodore. In fairness, the shot went through a mass of players before finding the back of the net, still when you saw Julien’s reaction on the bench, you can understand why Theo might have wanted that one back.
Less than a minute later, Ribeiro deked a poor Thrash defender out of his shorts, but in the process was tripped up by another man coming back to cover. In all the confusion, the puck bounced off the post, the goalie and a defender before finding its way to the back of the net. Probably not the prettiest goal in Ribeiro’s career, but he’ll hardly be giving it back, particularly since it turned out to be the winning tally.
It seemed the game was thrown wide open after that and both goalies were once again put to the test. Dafoe stopped Jason Ward on a breakaway with a toe stop and Theo made numerous up close and personal saves. And while the Canadiens coaches were probably pulling out hairs, the Habs were making intriguing play after intriguing play, culminating with Niklas Sundstrom being stopped on a break and Jan Bulis being stopped on the rebound.
While not making the scoresheet, it should be noted that captain Saku Koivu played probably the best defensive game of his career logging over 22 minutes including four and a half on the penalty kill. Still dangerous in the opposing zone, Captain Courageous was at his absolute best in breaking up plays defensively and showed how good he really can be.
Of course, a 37-save performance by Theo is also brilliant, no matter how you look at it. While this time versus the Thrash Ilya Kovalchuk managed only three shots, the rest of the team peppered the Hab star with shot after shot, and many were extremely dangerous. In the end, though, Theo made most of the saves look easy as his positioning kept him upright and mobile throughout the game.
This writer’s stars:
- Jose Theodore
- Saku Koivu
- Mike Ribeiro