Weather patterns were altered all over North America tonight, particularly in and around the region of Montreal, as fans of the Montreal Canadiens all breathed a sigh of relief upon noticing that their club was still alive. Despite losing the game against the Flyers by a score of 2-0, the Habs showed a lot of energy and concerted effort on this night, and after recent games, it’s a most welcome sign.
It was clear the team had received a fairly significant verbal spanking when the first shift piled second and third efforts on their first try. And while they couldn’t manage to score a goal on this night, it wasn’t for lack of fantastic scoring chances, it was more a case of excellent goaltending along with some sub-par finishing attempts – but one step at a time. Two shots early by Michael Ryder and Pierre Dagenais were only just saved thus preserving the tie.
While in the last four games the two top lines centred by captain Saku Koivu and heir apparent Mike Ribeiro were all but invisible, tonight they were a menace on almost every shift. Support that with a solid effort from the third and fourth lines and despite the loss, Claude Julien might have reason to smile privately tonight.
It also helps when those who had been playing sick come back to provide solid work, as was the case for Jacques-Beauchamp recipient Francis Bouillon and Stephane Quintal. Another change that made a difference on this night was the benching of Yanic Perreault for some Dagenais who showed a typically upbeat game after a benching.
After a scoreless first period where the Canadiens were easily the equal to the powerful Philly Flyers, they came out for a second where they were again solid in every aspect of the game. There was an edge to the play that hadn’t been evident in quite some time, leading many of the Canadiens to finish checks where normally they’d curl away leaving the opposition sitting pretty. Players who normally rely on intelligent defence and slick play were following through with solid hits in critical situations – specifically Andrei Markov, Ribeiro and Koivu.
If there’s still a problem in the Habs play it’s the indiscipline which has slowly crept into their game in recent weeks and which now threatens to bury them in penalty kill time. The Flyers first goal occurred during a Jim Dowd high stick call in the second.
With the play scrambling somewhat, the Canadiens were all caught out of position and Sheldon Souray could not contain a high shot in the slot, leaving Simon Gagne with an easy swipe for a goal. Quintal was nowhere to be seen on the play and Niklas Sundstrom was caught in no-man’s land with a case of severe indecision.
Even though they surrendered the first goal, the Canadiens weren’t about to sit down and die quietly. Shortly thereafter a re-energized Richard Zednik had a couple of chances on goal from nifty Koivu passes. Ryder, alone for a moment, attempted to tear through the entire Flyer defence, and was very nearly successful, serving notice that his skills and confidence continue to rise and that we’ve not yet seen the best from this talented kid from Newfoundland.
Jan Bulis then deked Kim Johnsson out of his shorts before offering up a weak shot to Sean Burke in the Philly net. And twice more before the end of the period it was Ryder showing his power and skill taking on Flyer opponents and making strong plays in the offensive zone.
The third started with something of a bang as Zednik somehow scrambled the puck through to move in alone on Burke, but again found himself thwarted. Perhaps it was at this point at the Habs started to lose some steam; despite all their chances, they’d managed not even a post. Perhaps it was a little frustration that caused Darren Langdon to lay a nasty hit on Tony Amonte as the latter was facing in another direction. Amonte lay on the ice, his bell rung, for a few moments after the contact.
Shortly after that, Jose Theodore was beaten on a bizarre play at the side of the net when Michal Handzus came out from behind the net and thrust the puck at goal from directly beside Theo. Whether it hit the stick of Koivu or somehow went in off the Habs goalie is uncertain, but the end result was a deficit of two goals with less than half a period left.
If this game entered with a roar, it fizzled with a whimper as the Canadiens failed to generate much more until the end of the game. It should be noted that the Flyers were sitting back to preserve their lead, however. In the end, with the goalie pulled, it was Patrice Brisebois making a nonchalant effort at an iced puck while on a power play that was the icing on the cake. When Sami Kapanen outworked him to the puck, Brisebois was forced to take a stupid penalty thus ending any last gasp effort.
In the end, though, it was something of a mission accomplished. While winning would have been the best outcome, there’s no doubt that a solid game of hockey was absolutely necessary for the morale of this club, and while the latter stages of the third were somewhat weaker, the affair, as a whole, should go a long way to restoring some of the lost confidence.
There remains only one game in the regular season for the playoff bound Canadiens, this Saturday night against the Buffalo Sabres. It should be a good challenge as it’s quite possible those Sabres will still be battling for a playoff spot, but what will remain the key goal for the Habs will be another solid effort, win or lose, as they head into the playoff dance.