Perhaps it was only an exhibition game, but for Habs fans who can’t attend games and who have access to the right channels, it was a year and a half of pent up frustration released as hockey finally hit the small screen for the first time in over a year. As a bonus, the Canadiens skated to a 3-2 victory over their arch rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While the return of hockey was, of course, the main dish for fans famished for action, the desert was the glimpse into the future of the club, as Montreal iced a good number of rookies for the game. For the more casual fan, the though of seeing unproven kids might have seemed disappointing, but the reality was exciting as the Habs youngsters displayed some NHL-calibre talent.
In fact, for the seasoned fan, the win (double win actually, since the Habs won the shoootout) was perhaps secondary to seeing how those kids fared in a competitive match. It’s highly doubtful that any Montreal Canadiens fan went home disappointed on this night.
A welcome sight was the rocket that Sheldon Souray launched behind Eddie Belfour early in the game as the Habs were on the power play (in fact all the goals in the game were scored on the power play). Lingering doubts about wrist injuries will slowly be easing as fans see one of the emerging stars looking quite comfortable ticking the twine – if a shot that hard can be called a tickle.
Towards the end of the first, Toronto equalised through Thomas Kaberle and then early in the second took a 2-1 lead with a shameful goal scored by Alex Ponikarovsky. Jose Theodore, who played the entire match, will surely want that one back as the puck somehow squeezed through his pads from an impossible angle. It’s the kind of goal that will make fans cringe – and pray that he gets them out of his system before the regular season begins.
Richard Zednik scored midway through the second off his own rebound to bring the Habs equal,and at the end of the period it was Thomas Plekanec who tallied the game’s final marker on shot from the point that was deflected by a Toronto defender into his own net.
The shootout was a standing-only affair, though there was only one goal scored. Jason Allison had Theo cleanly beaten, but only managed to ping the post. Alex Kovalev then fired an extremely powerful wrister into the top shelf to score the shootout’s only goal. It was definitely a goal-scorer’s shot.
Eric Lindros made a feeble attempt through Theo’s pads with a shot from about five feet, but it was easily turned aside. Alex Perezhogin tried to deke J-F Racine but the Toronto goalie stayed with him and made a fine pad stop, and that left the final opportunity for the Leafs to tie to Mariusz Czerkawski. Once again he beat Theo, but he lost control of the puck in the process handing Montreal the double win.
There were mostly strong performances from Montreal’s kids on this evening. Leading the way was Plekanec, a constant harrier and strong on the puck as well as showing very good speed. His continual play this fall seems to be forcing Montreal’s hand, and a return to the farm seems unlikely. Perezhogin was another who showed good form. And while there were moments of hesitation, it’s quite evident that he’s a strong offensive talent with plenty to offer the big club.
Perhaps most impressive on this night, despite missing out on the score sheet, was Chris Higgins. He displayed an extremely strong two-way game and showed why the Canadiens are very high on him. Once again, this is a player who is going to give Claude Julien the most enviable task of making decisions based on really strong play.
On defence, Mark Streit and J-P Cote were in the mix. While Streit played a solid, if quiet game, it was fairly obvious that Cote will need another year or so of work before he becomes NHL ready. His foot speed is especially weak, and with the wide open game, he also needs to increase his overall speed.
Perhaps the biggest lock for the Habs this year, though, is Marcel Hossa, who once again this pre-season played extremely hard and showed that he is more than ready to finally crack the lineup and make an impact in the NHL. Solid on and off the puck, he was especially impressive going to the net every chance he got. It’s particularly pleasing for the Canadiens that he seems to fit in well with Radek Bonk, who played with Marcel’s brother Marian in Ottawa.
On the other hand, something of a disappointment will be Ron Hainsey who seemed unsure of himself and managed to make the wrong decisions at the wrong time altogether too often. Hopefully it was just an off game for the youngster, but one can’t help but wonder about his future if he keeps looking ordinary on the ice.
As a final note, this writer was extremely pleased to see hockey for the first time in fifteen years, or so. Yes, fifteen years. Watching the game of Obstruction was tiring, and it’s about time we’re going to be able to see what these players can really do. When the colour man for RDS started saying that tolerance would be more evident in the regular season and that it was needed, one has to feel that he just doesn’t understand the problems the league had. Every penalty that was called tonight was completely justified, and it was wonderfully refreshing to watch players able to perform.
If they keep this up, it’s going to be the best season in recent memory. And that’s just what the doctor – or perhaps us, the fan – ordered.