If fans of the Montreal Canadiens feel like they’re in some sort of timeshift, they can be completely forgiven since they seem to be doing all those things that Don Cherry despised about the club. They’re gelling as the season moves towards the playoffs, they’re getting healthy, and therefore able to give some players a little less time so they can rest, and they’re winning; that last being the single most dreaded aspect to Cherry. At the Bell Centre tonight, Jose Theodore backstopped, brilliantly no less, yet another stunning win, this time over the Colorado Avalanche by the score of 4-2.
There were no shortage of heroes on this night, starting with the Habs star goaltender on up. Saku Koivu is in resplendent form, Yanic Perreault has metamorphosed into an all-round player, Michael Ryder continues to shock and impress in his run for the Calder, and Mike Ribeiro at time dazzles. Add to this mix Alex Kovalev who has found his hands and is starting to find his form, and Richard Zednik who, despite not hitting the scoresheet, was still extremely dangerous, and the Canadiens are looking downright dangerous up front.
Let’s not forget Jim Dowd, picked up at the trade deadline and now centreing the defensive line that shut down a certain Joe Sakic, and Jan Bulis, fresh off a knee injury and already flying around the ice. But wait, there’s more – though listing them all would inevitably drain the bandwidth of many internet users.
The game didn’t start out particularly well, as an Andrei Markov blunder sent two Avs in on Theodore. One brilliant save later, though, and the Habs looked a little better. To finally squash any further threat, none other than Perreault came back and made a strong defensive stick check.
It was like the game turned on a dime. For the next seven or eight minutes, the Habs were the dominant club, buzzing in and around David Aebischer like a bunch of angry bees; the beginning of the prolonged sequence emphasized with a big hit by Ribeiro.
Then it was Koivu picking up a puck in front of the Avs net and spinning 360 degrees to fire a backhand shot which forced a particularly good save from the Colorado netminder. Tonight saw Koivu at his finest, his most feisty and his most effective and this was the first in a string of impressive plays.
Make no mistake, though, this win was not all about great offence, but was a consistent effort from front to back within a system that should have the hockey world looking at Claude Julien as at least worthy of a tip-of-the-hat (since Andy Murray should win the Jack Adams when the other coaches step out of the race in deference to his stellar job in Los Angeles). Routinely the forwards were back to make the zone break-outs a relatively easy process.
Even the third line, consisting of Dowd, Bulis and Niklas Sundstrom, freshly back from his concussion, were buzzing early in this one, and they failed to convert a couple of nice chances early on. The rest of the game saw them simply erase the Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Paul Kariya line.
The Canadiens were rewarded for their superior hustle and hard work when Ribeiro gained the Avalanche zone on a power play and deftly slid a pass over to Ryder who was streaking to the slot. Despite being hooked and held, his second effort sent the puck sizzling over Aebischer’s glove sending the sellout crowd into their first frenzy of the night.
Less than two minutes later, it was Koivu controlling a puck in the corner, then stepping into space to deliver a picture perfect pass to Perreault. The one-time shot from the man with the newly discovered confidence again ripped over Aebischer’s glove, and the Habs were up by two with just under six minutes left in the period.
Colorado is an extremely strong team, however, and they certainly weren’t going to go down without a fight. On a power play situation, John-Michael Liles sent a precise cross ice pass to Rob Blake near the blueline, and his rifle went through Theodore’s legs to allow the visitors to escape the period only one down.
After a free-wheeling first, the second settled down to a more conservative style of hockey where players like Perreault stood out for their defensive work. Yes, you might want to read that sentence twice. On at least two occasions, the first line winger hustled back to break up solid scoring chances to keep Montreal in the game.
He couldn’t be everywhere, however, and Stephane Quintal’s gaffe a little over eight minutes into the third allowed the Avalanche to tie the game. While controlling the puck, Quintal curled around the Hab net and started up the left wing boards. He attempted to chip the puck off the wall, but in the process lost his footing and handed the puck to Matthew Barnaby. The ensuing play led to a two-on-none where Steve Konawalchuk fed Chris Gratton alone to tie the score.
The period ended with another pair of sparkling Canadien plays in the offensive zone. The first ended when Kovalev, still struggling to get his first point in the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge, sent a wrist shot slamming off the crossbar behind a beaten Aebischer. The second occurred when Koivu, with another scintillating spin move, snaked past Blake only to be thwarted at the last moment.
After Begin suckered the Avalanche into taking a penalty, Kovalev finally attained his first point in Montreal when, controlling the puck at the point on the power play, he send a seeing-eye pass slash shot to Koivu standing in front of the Colorado net. Despite being slashed and cross-checked, the Canadiens captain back-handed in his 14th of the season allowing the fans to erupt once again.
Shortly thereafter, Koivu found Zednik wide open in the slot, and the latter’s first-time shot only just missed the far post.
Once again, though, Colorado would not die. This time, on a giveaway deep in the Montreal zone by Sundstrom, Liles was robbed point-blank by Theodore whose glove save surely dampened the Avalanche spirit and gave heart to the Montreal defenders. It was the save of the game, and indeed the game-winning save.
The third continued with this Montreal Canadien version of the ‘Lunch Box Crew’ continuing it’s fine work. Ryder almost single-handedly went through three Avs while his team was on a line change, Koivu completely levelled Liles while fighting for the puck, and Perreault had yet another strong check to continue his stellar game.
In fact, let in the game with the Avalanche pressing once again, none other than Yanic Perreault out-muscled huge Rob Blake down low to win the puck for the Habs and send it down ice.
Montreal sealed the deal when a poised Kovalev lifted a puck to centre ice while Colorado had the extra attacker out to try and tie the game. Ryder got under the clearance and sent a cross-ice pass to Ribeiro who buried his 20th of the year, and the nail in the Avalanche coffin on this night.
Team effort? You bet! If you look at the last four or five games and analyze the play, you can see a trend where, as the competition gets better, so do the Habs. Old Don Cherry might have something to say this coming Saturday night. The Habs are starting to behave like the winning clubs of old.