For the second time in as many games, the Canadiens managed to pull out a victory despite playing poor hockey against one of the poorest clubs in the NHL. After a dynamite start where they scored two goals in the first two minutes of the game, the Canadiens virtually disappeared as the Penguins took control of the match and dominated for long stretches.
It was a mere 30 seconds into the game when Sheldon Souray, who’s last game against the Pens gave a franchise best six points, took a blast from the point and the rebound found Steve Begin sitting on the doorstep. Hardly a sweat had broken before Begin had swept the puck into the Pen goal.
A mere minute and a half later, Mike Ribeiro took a feed from Pierre Dagenais and found himself with an acre of space in front of Sebastien Caron. He took his time, waited for Caron to make the first move, then launched the puck upstairs to give the Canadiens a 2-0 lead. It looked like it was going to be a walk in the park.
However that was not to be the case. Eddie Olczyk, coach of the Penguins, took a timeout and after the break and a good tongue lashing, the Pens came out with a renewed vigour and started outplaying the Canadiens.
It was therefore not long before the Pens started to struggle their way back into the game. Just before the ten minute mark, Eric Meloche outskated Stephane Quintal to take a rebound and slide it home past Mathieu Garon.
One of the early messages given to the Pens was that of harassing Souray, and just after the ten minute mark, it finally paid off as the Hab defender lost his cool and started pounding on someone when they were down. Though it happens regularly in hockey with no call, this time the refs actually called the foul as described in the book and Souray was lost to the Habs for the duration of the game
A few moments later on the powerplay, Konstantin Koltsov took a pass from behind the net and somehow beat Garon under the arm.
For the rest of the period the more talented Canadiens sat back and watched as the hard-working Pens won virtually every battle. If not for a very few players like Begin and Jason Ward, who both worked incessantly, the Habs looked like they were ready for the all-star break to begin immediately.
The early second brought more of the same, though a two-on-one break from Joe Juneau and Ward at the outset against the grain of play almost caught the Pens out. Unfortunately, instead of shooting the puck, the two played a passing game which was broken up with a nice diving defensive play.
Back on the powerplay shortly after that, the Pens made the Habs pay when a failed clearance by Jan Bulis found its way to the stick of Rico Fata, who buried his shot to give the Penguins the lead. It should be noted that the Canadiens penalty kill, having done so well for so long, has now stumbled badly and has fallen from being ranked in the low teens to beyond 20th in the league.
Apparently deciding that enough was enough, the Habs finally started to play some better hockey, and Saku Koivu just about hooked up with a breaking Craig Rivet, only a superb defensive play stopping the chance. Very soon after, the Habs went on the powerplay themselves and were rewarded for good puck movement and solid play.
Taking a shot from the point, Patrice Brisebois hit Caron low causing a rebound which Richard Zednik, in good position and playing well after his benching late against the Hawks, made a swipe at the puck. While he touched it, it wasn’t enough to slide all the way in, and Koivu swooped in from the side of the net and slid the loose puck home.
Once again, however, having taken the lead, the Habs went back into hibernation and were beaten all over the ice. In fact, allowing 35 shots against a team like the Penguins, composed almost entirely of guys who would otherwise be in the AHL if Pittsburgh were a healthy franchise, is dismal.
Fortunately, the Habs are a different team this year, and while they aren’t great at all aspects, they are much improved and therefore sometimes get breaks because of gritty play from a few of their players. Niklas Sundstrom was the architect of the Habs fourth goal as he muscled past a defender and jumped on a loose puck off a rebound.
The third gave fans much of the same as the Habs were outworked continually. Fortunately they had enough to hold on to the game, and the Pens even helped out when they gave up a four minute man advantage situation for the Canadiens when Michael Ryder was hit in the face with a stick.
Apparently, the refs wanted the finish to be as exciting as possible as they called Begin for boarding with 40 seconds left in the game. From the rulebook, boarding is any hit that causes someone to be smacked into the boards fairly heftily. However, it should be noted that almost every hit in the NHL would then be boarding. The call was atrocious, but in the end it didn’t matter as the Habs killed off the rest of the game.
Altogether an unconvincing affair, mind you, and the Canadiens will have to find their game soon, particularly since they play the Islanders, who are immediately behind them in the standings, in two short days.